Duo gives $100,000 prize to launch Day One Project, build nursery at Malawi hospital
Rice University bioengineering professors Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden, the winners of the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, are donating their prize money toward the construction of a new neonatal ward at the African hospital that has helped implement Rice’s low-cost, student-designed health care technologies since 2007.
The Lemelson-MIT Program today announced that Oden and Richards-Kortum won the prestigious award in honor of their life-saving inventions and pioneering efforts to inspire and lead Rice students to invent and deliver low-cost technological innovations to improve health care for people in developing nations.
“When Maria and I learned we had won this award, we both knew exactly how we wanted to use the prize money,” Richards-Kortum said. “Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre (Malawi) is an extraordinary place that is committed to caring for the world’s most vulnerable patients. 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.”
Oden and Richards-Kortum are two of the driving forces behind the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies and Rice 360°’s award-winning, hands-on engineering education program Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB). BTB is an engineering-design program founded in 2006 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. More than 10 percent of Rice undergraduates — including many non-engineering students — have participated in BTB, which has produced 58 low-cost health technologies, including two that are already being broadly distributed by national health authorities in the developing world.
“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.”
Oden and Richards-Kortum said the new QECH nursery will provide excellent care for newborns and serve as an innovation hub for the design, evaluation and implementation of Rice 360°’s Day One Project, an ambitious $375,000 effort to improve the lives of newborns in the developing world from the day they are born. Through the Day One Project, Rice 360° aims to create a collection of low-cost, neonatal technologies that a district hospital serving 250,000 people can implement for about $5,000.
“Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden have applied outstanding research and motivated our innovative students to use simple technology to improve health care in the world’s poorest regions,” said Rice President David Leebron. “As teachers, they have challenged their students to become leaders who use their skills in the service of others and betterment of our world, in this case saving babies’ lives, and that is a fundamental part of Rice’s mission.”
Richards-Kortum, the Stanley C. Moore Professor and chair of Rice’s Department of Bioengineering, also directs Rice 360°. Oden, professor in the practice of bioengineering and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, coordinates the technical design efforts of BTB students.
BTB students work in teams to design technologies that address health care challenges identified by clinicians in the developing world. Each summer, about a dozen Rice students take the year’s most promising BTB designs to Africa and Latin America for evaluation under the guidance of physicians and nurses in clinics and hospitals. More than 90 percent of BTB summer interns plan to incorporate global health activities into their careers after graduation.
The Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding innovators and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. The program recognized Richards-Kortum and Oden for several BTB technologies, including Rice’s “bubble CPAP” system, or bCPAP, a respiratory support system for newborns that uses low-cost aquarium pumps to generate “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP).
CPAP technology helps keep a child’s lungs inflated and makes it easier for them to breathe. The technology, which is particularly beneficial for premature newborns with immature lungs and for infants who are fighting severe respiratory infections, is widely available in the developed world, but the machines there cost about $6,000 and are too expensive for most developing world hospitals.
Doctors at QECH challenged Rice’s BTB students to come up with a lower-cost alternative, and they created bCPAP, a $400 system that delivers the same therapeutic flow and pressure as systems used in the developed world. BTB evaluated the device at QECH in a clinical trial funded by Saving Lives at Birth, a joint program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Norwegian government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank. The clinical trial found that bCPAP greatly improved the survival rates for premature babies. BTB is now working with Malawi’s Ministry of Health to implement Rice’s system in all of the country’s hospitals.
Richards-Kortum and Oden said the Day One Project is designed to replicate the success of bCPAP. Day One uses the methods pioneered in the bCPAP project to refine, implement and evaluate other neonatal technologies developed at Rice that will address the primary causes of infant mortality.
“We are accepting the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation on behalf of all of the people at Rice, the Texas Medical Center and around the world who have helped to make BTB’s work possible,” Oden said. “Our decision to donate the prize money to QECH is a way to recognize the efforts of our students and collaborators, while ensuring that more life-saving technologies like bCPAP will be used to improve neonatal care in the developing world.”
Other BTB innovations recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Program include:
- 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.
“What is striking about these great professors is their vision that undergraduates can develop robust, inexpensive, technical solutions to solve real problems, and that the students can go to places like Malawi, deploy their prototypes and make the necessary modifications and improvements to deliver sustainable, practical, working devices,” said Ned Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering.
The Lemelson-MIT Program and its awards are named for Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history’s most prolific inventors. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.
“By introducing their undergraduate students to the health care challenges that exist in low-resource areas, and training those students in the invention process both inside and outside of the classroom, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden have created a group of young inventors who are developing solutions that save lives,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “The Lemelson-MIT Program’s award winners are chosen based on their own technological inventiveness and their ability to inspire the next generation of inventors. With several inventions in the field and many of the Beyond Traditional Borders students going on to include technology and global health as a focus of their careers, Rebecca and Maria are outstanding award winners and role models.”