UNM professor Heather Canavan sat in her office in the Centennial Engineering Building, still grossed out from a colonoscopy prep drink she had taken two days earlier as part of her treatment for breast cancer. The gallon of gunk she had to drink was so awful that she was complaining to a student.

“What I was really frustrated by was that the (colonoscopy) test itself is not bad,” Canavan said. “It’s the preparation that was really hard, and unnecessarily so.”

The student, Phuong Nguyen, had dropped by with a lunch for Canavan that included Bánh mì sandwiches and bubble tea. Canavan, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, was curious about the drink, also known as boba tea. She took a sip.

As Canavan considered the beverage, Nguyen described how it contains tapioca balls that can be chewed or sucked. Canavan’s mind went to thoughts she had been having on how to create a better experience for patients who need gastrointestinal procedures.

“I thought ‘that’s exactly what we need, is something where instead of tasting the colonoscopy prep or having that weird viscous feeling, it could be something that you could either chew or just suck down,’ ” Canavan said.

The current prep process involves dissolving a packet of a polymer blend into four liters of water, and then chugging the entire concoction to clean out a patient’s bowels.

Instead of asking patients to consume so much liquid in a short amount of time, Canavan pictured a smaller drink that contains balls of stimulant-responsive polymer that discharge the medicine once they are in the stomach. The prep drink also could be much tastier, she thought. And serving sizes could be tailored to patients’ body weights — different from the one-size-fits all amount that is prescribed now.

She set to brainstorming with Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering.

“That was on a Friday. And then, by the next week, we had written a patent, we had written a proposal and we founded a company,” Canavan said.

Read more about the how UNM professor and students make procedural prep more palatable here: https://advance.unm.edu/2019/03/05/unm-professor-and-students-make-procedure-prep-more-palatable/

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