Dr. Eugene Ko Awarded Inaugural Advancing Oral, Craniofacial Health Award for New Biodevices


Dr. Eugene Ko, Penn Dental Medicine

Philadelphia – With the goal of developing new oral health care technologies and devices, the inaugural Advancing Oral & Craniofacial Health Award was recently awarded to Penn Dental Medicine’s Dr. Eugene Ko, Assistant Professor of Clinical Oral Medicine, for a project titled “Baby Seal: Promoting Intrinsic Sucking in Cleft Palate Infant Bottle Feeding.” Dr. Ko will be collaborating on the project with Dr. Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor and Chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Penn Engineering.

“We launched the Center for Innovation and Precision Dentistry (CiPD) to advance this type of project development in collaboration with Engineering, and we are thrilled to have the Oral & Craniofacial Award now part of the Health-Tech Accelerator,” says Dr. Michel Koo, Professor in the Department of Orthodontics and Divisions of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health, and Co-Director of CiPD.

Through the CiPD, this award was included for the first time to the Health-Tech Design and Development program, co-sponsored by Penn Health-Tech (PHT) and the Acceleration Lab at the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation. In addition to the Oral & Craniofacial Award, the PHT Health-Tech Accelerator Program 2021 Cohort includes four other projects in the categories of neuro-gene therapy, regenerative ophthalmology, health technology for social justice, and general.

“It is exciting to see such talents unite at the interface of disciplines,” says Dr. Kathleen Stebe, Goodwin Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn Engineering and CiPD Co-Director. “We expect great things.”

The program empowers researchers to develop and commercialize medical devices and health technologies to advance health and health care. Awardees receive funding, hands-on advising to support development and achieve proof of concept, and access to industry experts and complementary programs to assist with engineering and design, manufacturing, regulatory guidance, quality systems, and marketing.

Dr. Ko and Dr. Yang will be working to improve the overall feeding experience and infant growth outcomes for children born with cleft lips and palates through the development of a specialized bottle system. Dr. Ko explains that the idea for the product came to him after some close family friends described their challenge feeding their infant son with a cleft lip and palate.

“Hearing about the stress they went through in the first few months of their son’s life really stuck with me on a personal level, but also piqued my interest from a clinical standpoint,” says Dr. Ko. “Physiologically, infants with a palatal cleft cannot suck properly; think of a straw with a hole in it.”

A literature search he conducted established a consistent theme of feeding difficulties as well as a void in the market for a device that promoted the intrinsic sucking reflex. Current devices require infants to learn new biting behaviors or parents to actively squeeze milk into their infant’s throat.

Dr. Shu Yang, Penn Engineering

Coincidentally, at this same time, Dr. Ko happened to have read an article in Penn Today about Dr. Shu Yang from Penn Engineering, who invented a reversible adhesive inspired by snail slime, and he had his eureka moment.

“I approached Dr. Yang with a proposal to use her reversible adhesive to temporarily seal the hole in the palate during feeding,” he recalls. “Our project would enhance current specialized infant feeding bottle systems by incorporating a novel hydrogel that will allow parents to create a temporary seal over the cleft palate.”

“This award through the CiPD and PHT has created a real path forward for our proposal and for allowing this collaboration to grow,” he continues. “We look forward to developing the idea and helping to improve the lives of families and infants born with cleft palate.”