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Asthma is no laughing matter, but Chris Ciancone thinks the inhalers he uses now to treat his lung disease are a joke.

The Westminster College business student, with the help of three University of Utah engineering students, turned that frustration into the winning entry for the U.'s Bench to Bedside Medical Device Competition earlier this month.

Inhalers haven't advanced much in Ciancone's lifetime despite their shortcomings, said the 24-year-old mountain climbing enthusiast from Layton. The devices are formally called pressurized metered dose inhalers, or pMDI, an acronym Ciancone came to loath during asthma attacks that leave him gasping for air.

"It looks like it came out of 1982 textbook," Ciancone said. "It's hard to use. You have to have perfect hand-breath coordination, and even it you get it right, you only get 20 percent of the medicine to the lungs. Not only does it look horrible, it doesn't get the job done."

Asthma is an acute inflammation of airways in the lungs that afflicts up to 10 million Americans. While recovering from sinus surgery last year, Ciancone became fixated on improving existing inhalers, which emit an aerosolized dose that needs to get into the airways to do any good.

Most of the drug just gets stuck in the mouth and throat, according to the team.

"You have a half-second window to get the inhalation right," Ciancone said. "If you put this in the hands  of a child or elderly person, they aren't going to get the medicine in their lungs. It only leads to poor patient compliance and frustration."

His team created a device they call LIYEN, an acronym for Last Inhaler You'll Ever Need and pronounced like the lion Ciancone put on his business card. He and his teammates — Jamal Abdinor, Camilo Corredor, and Jackson Murphy — are starting a business to turn their idea into a product they say will improve the health of asthmatics and save them money.

"I'm excited to see what comes from his project," said Matt Sorensen, a second-year U. medical student who organizes Bench to Bedside. "They found an interesting niche. It's been a long time coming for something to change. It's opened a window for a new market."

Ciancone's team claims LIYEN users will not have to worry about timing their inhalations, and that patients' lungs will receive 70 to 90 percent of the drug used to control asthma. That drug commonly goes under the brand Albuterol.

Anxiety of unpredictable attacks prevents asthmatics from fully engaging life, according to Ciancone, whose own attacks are triggered by allergens.

"We feel our device will empower them to do what they dream to do. For me that's climbing mountains," Ciancone said. He hopes to personally demonstrate LIYEN's efficacy on a climb up Tanzania's Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak at 19,341 feet.

The crew of undergraduates bested 13 other Bench to Bedside teams, mostly led by U. graduate and medical students, to claim the $15,000 grand prize, plus the $5,000 prize for best business plan. They were also angling for the $1,000 prize for most creative poster.

"We lost to a rectal catheter," Murphy said.

Murphy, a bioengineering major, and Ciancone entered the inaugural Bench to Beside last year with U. medical students, presenting an idea for surgical markers. This year, they hooked up with Coredor and Abdinor, chemical engineering majors who graduated from the U.-affiliated hich school called AMES, or Academy of Math, Science and Engineering.

They kicked around ideas for improving portable dialysis machines, tattoos that measure glucose levels and multi-cartridge syringes, before settling on the inhaler, which are used by millions of people and have seen little innovation.

"The drug companies are making plenty of money so they are content with the way things are," Murphy said.

Ciancone, who graduates this spring, is considering graduate school at the U. to study in the Lassonde entrepreneur program. But he and the LIYEN team are devoting the next year developing a prototype and securing patents and FDA clearance.

The University of Utah last year launched this challenge to students to develop commercially viable improvements to medical devices. This year $70,000 was awarded to teams in various categories. Most of the 14 interdisciplinary groups teamed medical students with business and engineering students. They work with a faculty mentor who vets and guides their ideas.

"This is an invaluable experience whether your team gets the big check or not. We want them to walk away with skills and experience they will not get in any other way," organizer Matt Sorensen said. "Let them get their hands dirty on something that they care about. That's what adds that element of fire and drive."

The U. Office of Technology Ventures Development sponsors the contest with financial support from USTAR and Zions Bank. Here's a list of this year's winners selected at an April 6 event at the Rice-Eccles Stadium tower.

First Place ($15,000) • LIYEN Inhaler (Jamal Abdinor, Camilo Corredor, Jackson Murphy, Chris Ciancone).

Runners-up ($10,000) • Smart Ox (Azedah Poursaid, Dallas Shi, Ashlie Bernhisel, Joey Lambert, Charmaine Keck, Andrew Godsey, Daniel Chipping); Advance Cath (Ryan O'Callaghan, Garret Coman, Nick Blickenstaff); Real Time INR (Taylor Webb, Michael Cline, Greg Sun).

Best Business ($5,000) • LIYEN Inhaler.

Best Medical ($5,000) • Smart Ox.

Best Engineering ($5,000) • FIT Catheter (Ahrash Poursaid, Mitch Barneck, Ryan Coil, Martin de la Presa, Adam Bracken, Nate Rhodes, James Allen, Shawn Moore).