UI student-designed bra for breast cancer patients receives cash prize

Tom Snee
Office of Strategic Communications

A team of biomedical engineers and University of Iowa alumnae who designed a bra to help breast cancer survivors prevent lymphedema won a $10,000 prize that they will use to commercialize the garment.

The former students will use the prize from the Victoria’s Secret GRL PWR Project to file a patent for the GAMA bra, which they plan to sell along with the design for the bra to an existing manufacturer that already makes compression garments.  

The GAMA bra was designed by biomedical engineering majors Genevieve Goelz, Maria Fernanda Larraga Martinez, Anna Rodriguez, and Ashten Sherman as part of their senior design course in 2018. The senior design class in the College of Engineering emulates a real-world product development process by requiring students to identify an unmet need and then design a product to meet that need.

The design process was a campuswide effort. The team worked not only with staff and faculty in the College of Engineering, but also a cancer patient therapist in the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and a seamstress in the Department of Theatre Arts who sewed prototype bras because none of the team members knew how to professionally sew.

“The university provided us with the resources to create our design and put us in touch with a network of individuals across campus who could help us understand the scope of the problem and develop the means to create a final product,” Goelz says.

The GAMA bra was one of 20 projects selected from 5,000 submitted to Victoria’s Secret as part of its GRL PWR Project, which the company says is an opportunity for women between the ages of 18 and 25 who are leaders, trendsetters, and go-getters to apply for funding that will help make their goals a reality.

Goelz says the bra is designed to provide preventative measures against lymphedema, a painful swelling that can occur in the arms or torso after a unilateral mastectomy while at the same time providing support for the remaining breast. The bra provides the compression needed to prevent fluid build-up that could possibly result from the removal of lymph nodes during the mastectomy. If the area is not compressed after surgery, the swelling can cause myriad health issues, in addition to pain, discomfort, and range of motion limitations, often for the rest of a patient’s life.

Goelz says the bra is unique in that it’s designed for women who have a unilateral mastectomy, or only one breast surgically removed. Most products on the market are designed for women who have bilateral mastectomies, or both breasts removed, and provide uniform pressure across the entire surgical area. Goelz says garments made for bilateral mastectomies are uncomfortable for women who have unilateral mastectomies because it either puts too much pressure on the remaining breast, or the patient has to wear a conventional bra over the compression garment for support. As a single piece, Goelz says, the GAMA bra is easier to use, more effective, and less expensive.

Unilateral mastectomies are becoming increasingly frequent—more than 32,000 are performed annually, according to BreastCancer.org—so Goelz says there’s a growing market for the GAMA bra.

“We know there’s a need for this,” she says. “Winning this award is bringing attention to a problem that’s so fixable, and this brings us one step closer to a solution.”

Goelz is intimately familiar with breast cancer and its complications, as her grandmother, Geri, endured three bouts with the disease. Geri Goelz provided the team with advice and insight about the physical and emotional toll of cancer and its complications during the design process until she succumbed to the disease at the start of the spring semester in 2018.

“It actually helped that I was working on this project at the time of her death,” says Goelz. “It reminded me of why I got into engineering in the first place. As biomedical engineers, we’re creating solutions for people who are facing life-and-death situations. I don’t think there’s a better way that I could be honoring my grandmother’s memory.”