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Innovative Health Care From Houston Is Saving Lives in Malawi

Two Rice University professors find a way to multiply their prize money and their research to help save premature infants.

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Maria Oden (left) and Rebecca Richards-Kortum at Rice University's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen in Houston.

With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m inclined to think about how thankful the world should be for people like Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden and their students.

Back in May, the two Rice University professors won the legendary $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for their pioneering efforts to inspire and lead Rice students to invent low-cost health care technologies for developing nations. No one was more deserving. Together, the pair have mentored more than 3,000 students whose inventions have helped at least 45,000 people in 24 countries. But what Richards-Kortum and Oden did after winning was truly remarkable. The professors donated their prize money toward the construction of a new neonatal ward at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), the African hospital in Malawi that helped implement many of their students’ technologies.

Knowing that their prize would cover only part of the costs for the new ward, Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor and chair of the Department of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, and Oden, professor in the practice of bioengineering and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, launched the Day One Project to raise additional funds. More than 100 donors contributed smaller amounts online through an innovative “crowd funding” campaign driven by social media. Just as Richards-Kortum and Oden donated their prize money, they inspired a high school student to donate the $500 grand prize he won last spring in an engineering-design competition. Talk about leadership by example! Thanks to these donations and several large contributions, by the end of the summer the professors were able to present the hospital with $375,000.

The Day One Project

Giving back to QECH was a way to honor the hospital’s lasting impact on their lives. Neither professor has forgotten her first visit to QECH in 2006. At the time, they were still formulating their plans for Rice’s award-winning, hands-on engineering design and education program Beyond Traditional Borders. BTB sends about a dozen Rice students overseas each summer to work with partners in the developing world. The prototypes that Rice students have created throughout the school year at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen are tested in these developing countries.

QECH has hosted BTB students each summer since that first visit, and through the Day One Project, Richards-Kortum and Oden were meeting two goals: significantly expanding the hospital’s neonatal facilities and establishing an “innovation hub” where future technologies developed by Rice students can be proven and showcased for other Malawian and African health professionals. Ultimately, the professors hope to create a collection of low-cost, neonatal technologies that a district hospital serving 250,000 people can implement for about $5,000.

“Each year, more than 3 million babies die within the first month of life,” Oden said. “Ninety-nine percent of those deaths happen in the developing world, and many of them could be prevented if hospitals in low-income countries had access to a few low-cost technologies that combat the most common causes of infant mortality.”

Innovative Technologies at Work
The specific technologies recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Award are the best gauge of the potential impact of the neonatal innovation hub. One of these, Rice’s “bubble CPAP” system, is already being implemented nationwide in Malawi, where it is expected to save the lives of 178,000 newborns each year.

Bubble CPAP, or bCPAP, is a respiratory support system for newborns that makes use of “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP). CPAP technology is common in the developed world. It helps keep a child’s lungs inflated and makes it easier for them to breathe. The technology is particularly beneficial for premature newborns with immature lungs and for infants who are fighting severe respiratory infections. CPAP machines that are used in the developed world cost about $6,000 and are too expensive for most developing world hospitals. Rice’s bCPAP uses low-cost aquarium pumps and costs about 10-20 times less. A clinical trial at QECH showed that the technology can boost the survival rate of premature Malawi newborns with respiratory distress syndrome from 24 percent to 65 percent.

Oden and Richards-Kortum hope the Day One facility at QECH will help streamline the process for rolling out technologies like bCPAP.

“Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital is an extraordinary place that is committed to caring for the world’s most vulnerable patients,” Richards-Kortum told me. “The physicians there have shown us how simple innovations can dramatically improve neonatal health, and they’ve inspired us to engage our students in solving the challenges of newborn care in low-resource settings.”

Two other innovations recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Award are:

DoseRight Syringe Clips, which improve dosing accuracy in the delivery of AIDS-fighting drugs that must be delivered in precise quantities to prevent the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to their babies. The clips are being used in Swaziland, Africa.

—A low-cost fluorescence microscope that uses a battery-powered LED flashlight. The Global Focus Microscope can be manufactured for about one-10th the cost of a conventional fluorescence microscope. Some 20 prototypes of the device are in field tests worldwide.

Richards-Kortum and Oden have done more than apply outstanding lab research to solve problems. They have motivated and inspired undergraduate students to believe that they can make a difference and change the world.

To learn more about Rice University’s Day One Project, please visit http://rice360.rice.edu/dayoneproject.

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.

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