Kitchen serves up blue-light special

Bioengineering sophomore tweaks bili lights to cure babies of jaundice

Rice News staff

Yiwen Cui knew she’d found a project worthy of her talents while studying in Mexico last summer.

“I went to a local government hospital, one of the main branches for children, and the pediatric ward had only one bili light for this huge, entire room,” said the Rice bioengineering major, who was south of the border as part of a Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program. “They were constantly moving children in and out.”

Yiwen Cui

Yiwen Cui and her refined bili light, which uses an array of 80 blue LEDs to cure infants of jaundice. The sophomore built the device at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

Bili lights help cure children of jaundice, but the process isn’t quick. It takes a solid 24 to 48 hours under the lights to treat an infant properly. When Cui took charge of a Rice 360˚ and BTB initiative to refine bili lights for distribution to developing countries, she understood the value of making them both available and affordable.

Cui, a Wiess College sophomore, now has the task of making 10 or 20 more bili lights in kit form over the next few weeks. They will be taken to the far corners of the globe by BTB and Rice 360˚ interns this summer. Cui herself will carry several kits to Swaziland and Malawi, where she’ll spend eight weeks looking for opportunities to place bili lights where they’re most needed.

Whether added to the “hot cot,” an incubator also developed by a team of students at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or placed over a crib, bili lights help protect newborns from developing jaundice, a yellowing of the skin caused by increased levels of bilirubin in the fatty tissues underneath.

Bilirubin is a product of the normal breakdown of red blood cells and is usually excreted in bile. (When a bruise takes on a yellowish hue, that’s bilirubin at work.) More than 60 percent of newborns have some degree of jaundice, and in most cases the condition disappears by itself. But because high levels of bilirubin can cause brain damage, intervention is necessary in severe cases.

Phototherapy — exposing jaundiced children to strong blue light at a wavelength of 420-470 nanometers — is the most effective way to cut bilirubin levels. Light waves pass through the skin and break down bilirubin molecules so the body can eliminate them. In developed countries, bili lights are common, as are bili blankets that deliver blue light directly to an infant’s skin through fiber optics.

But in developing countries, such devices are prohibitively expensive.

Born in China and raised from the age of 8 in Sugar Land, Cui kept the overall shape of the original Rice bili lights designed by then-undergraduates Sarah Wulf, Nick Ripp and Frank Ko, but doubled the number of LEDs to 80 to get the proper intensity, changed the orientation of the lights to maximize efficiency and simplified the electronics.

Her current bili light, made of wood, LEDs and minimal electronics with a plastic cover, is compact and very portable and can be moved from hot cot to crib as needed. It costs about $70 to build, though Cui feels she can cut that to about $50 when she’s able to buy the components in bulk.

“I want to improve some aspects of it and continue overseeing the project,” said Cui, anticipating her return to Rice in the fall. “I feel I can make it better and easier to assemble, and I want to find a way to avoid soldering the electronics, because that can be an issue in developing countries.

“At the same time, I’m looking forward to using my experience this summer to jumpstart another project I can work on too.”

Rice 360˚ Director Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden, director of the design kitchen and professor in the practice of engineering, will take Cui’s completed unit to Haiti within a week for testing, and they expect to return with further ideas for improvement. Oden said Cui’s work this year is the direct result of feedback received from testing in Malawi last year.





About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.