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4 Smart Medical Devices That Could Save Lives, All Built By College Students

A unique program at Rice University is churning out live-saving student projects that are now being field tested across the developing world.

It’s not unusual to hear of students developing solutions to developing world problems. Such projects are a standard part of engineering and design programs around the country, and we’ve covered a number of them here. A couple of things make Rice University’s Institute for Global Health Technologies program stand out, though.

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In the program, undergraduates are given time to bring their products through prototyping, clinical testing, and beyond. Several projects have received funding from international agencies and are on their way to becoming actual products. What’s even more interesting is that the program is open not just to engineering majors but to students from all over campus, including the humanities. That gives the projects a broader basis than you sometimes see.

“We ask the students to solve challenges in the setting that brought us the challenge, which is often a very low resource hospital or clinic in a place where they don’t have access to disposable or money to buy really fancy equipment,” explains Rice professor Maria Oden.

Oden, who’s appearing as a speaker at the Poptech conference next month, walked us through some projects students are currently working on.

Breath Alert

With very young brains still maturing, infants can sometimes forget to breathe. In developed world hospitals, this isn’t normally a problem. The baby would be hooked up to sophisticated monitoring equipment, so doctors and nurses are quickly alerted. In the developing world, babies are often monitored by a nurse only, and she or he may have 30 or 40 other infants to watch over. Babies can die from apnea, as the condition is known.

Breath Alert is a simple band placed across a baby’s abdomen. It senses whether the infant is still breathing and, if not, starts to vibrate. “The device detects the apnea and will actually correct it if the baby stops breathing for a period of time. Then it will alarm if that doesn’t help.” Oden says. “It helps the baby but also alleviates the strain on the nurses.”

The project recently won a grant from USAID, the Norwegian government, the Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, and the U.K.’s Department for International Development, which will allow it go through clinical evaluation.

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Bubble CPAP machine

The bCPAP is also aimed at young babies–in this case, babies whose lungs collapse when deflated, making breathing difficult and tiring. The device uses a simple water bottle to create pressure in the tube that reaches into the infant. When more pressure is needed, nurses just fill it up with liquid, so more air is pushed out. “It maintains the lungs open like a first blow on a balloon and then the baby can breathe normally. It supports them as their lungs get developed,” Oden explains.

The bCPAP is much cheaper than equivalent equipment in developed world hospitals. It costs $400 to $500 compared to about $8,000. The project just received a second USAID grant and is currently being field-tested in every district hospital in Malawi.

Blood pressure monitor

This device helps nurses check on patients more easily. It’s a blood pressure monitor for expectant mothers who need their readings taken as regularly as every 15 minutes. That’s often difficult to achieve manually, as nurses will struggle to attend to all the patients in their ward. “We’ve designed [a machine] where the doctor or nurse can set intervals at which they want testing to be done,” Oden says. “It’s very much like the higher-cost systems that you see at the hospital and has an alarming mechanism.”

AutoSyP Syringe Pump

The AutoSyP delivers small, highly specific amounts of intravenous drugs or liquids. It’s a mechanical device regulated with simple electronics and powered by a battery. It could be used to administer controlled doses of medicines to babies, heart attack or stroke victims, or mothers who suffer from preeclampsia.

“It’s designed to be more robust and to use less power than traditional syringe pumps,” Oden says. “It doesn’t have the bells and whistles and electronic controls that make it challenge to use sometimes in a [developing world] setting, and they might not be able to repair it when it breaks. All these technologies will break in some shape or form, so they need to be designed for people on-site to repair them.”

The box costs $400 and is set to be field-tested in Fuji.

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Oden says every part of getting a medical device to market is challenging–from identifying the need, to finding partners to test and commercialize devices. “We’re left with a challenge that we’re an academic institution with undergraduate engineering students. We really believe that there is merit to this technology, but how do we get it out there?,” she says.

One way Rice helps along the process is by hiring promising undergraduates to work in academic labs after they’ve completed their studies. That allows them to work on the device for longer and write a better research grant proposal. “The goal is to get a grant, then do an initial clinical evaluation, ideally in Houston first, then in the field,” Oden says. “After that, we can begin to bring in industry people because we don’t actually start companies here.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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