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A Better Way To Treat Babies With Jaundice In The Developing World

A condition that’s easily treated in the U.S. can be life threatening for babies in many parts of the world. All we need to stop it is a little light–we just need to get it to them.

A Better Way To Treat Babies With Jaundice In The Developing World

Normally, it’s not hard to treat babies born with jaundice. In richer countries, infants soon lose the yellowish tinge to their skin once they spend time in a light-filled incubator. The treatment, called phototherapy, eliminates the excess bilirubin pigment in the blood after a couple of days.

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However, that’s not necessarily the case in poor countries where basic equipment often breaks down or simply isn’t available. For the many infants who live far from hospitals or clinics, jaundice can be life-threatening. Six million kids don’t get adequate treatment, according to one study.

That’s why Vivek Kopparthi and three other graduates from Arizona State University are developing the NeoLight, a portable, low-cost alternative treatment. They believe it could help more babies survive and prosper.

“These [conventional] devices consume a lot of power, they have a lot of moving parts, and they’re five foot tall. You need a truck to deliver it,” says Kopparthi. “Our device fits in a backpack and you can take it wherever you want to. It’s also easy for unskilled labor to use.”

About twice the size of an iPad, the NeoLight contains six LEDs that produce a bluish color. Babies lie on the surface for two or three days, depending on the severity of their condition. It’s more energy efficient than a standard incubator and can be run off a solar panel or battery, if necessary.

Though the need for jaundice treatment is greatest in the developing world, Neolight is also working on a version for richer countries too. Once it wins regulatory approval, it hopes to use a one-for-one model, where it sells one unit for full cost in the U.S. or Europe while it gives another away free abroad. Kopparthi says the incubator costs about $120 to make compared to $5,000 or more for larger products. It’s cheaper mainly because it uses fewer lamps and because it concentrates all the light on the infant, rather than dispersing some of it around the clinic.

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Kopparthi developed the product with Chase Garrett, Sivakumar Palaniswamy and Deepak Krishnaraju. They’ve already raised $500,000 in seed funding and hope to win FDA assent within six months, though that’s not necessary to sell the unit in places like India, where safety standards are more lenient.

The Neolight isn’t the only product of its type. D-Rev developed the Brilliance range a few years ago, which it now licenses to a manufacturer in Chennai. But then there seems to be plenty of need for new jaundice treatments.

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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