Engineering, Innovative Technologies and Global Health

September 22, 2010

The four panelists for the “Engineering, Innovative Technologies, and Global Health” session looked at ways that bioengineering is driving advances in global health.

 Joseph Hughes of Georgia Tech said that more 1.5 million children die each year because of preventable water- and sanitation-related diseases, but solving this problem isn’t easy. Water sanitation requires many things, including infrastructure, capital, and regulation. While there is no “silver bullet” technology yet for the developing world, there are promising developments, Hughes said.  Water can now be decontaminated by using UV rays from the sun to kill germs; Hughes is also looking at ways to sanitize water in bottles using visible light, which is a more abundant light source.

Catherine Klapperich of Boston University demonstrated a prototype of a small, portable tool that could be used to test a patient for HIV on the spot, or at “point-of-care.”  The tool, which is about the size of a student microscope, doesn’t require a power supply. The sample pops out of the tool so it can be processed and then shipped and stored. 

University of Washington professor Paul Yager showed slides of a point-of-care diagnostic tool prototype developed as part of the Gates Foundation-funded Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative. The tool, called DxBox, can detect six different pathogens and is about the size of a Netbook. “We want to be able to backpack it into a small village somewhere,” said Yager. DxBox is being developed by Seattle-area company Micronics. Yager also talked about what his lab envisions as the next step in point-of-care diagnostics – using a cell phone to run the diagnostic code or sending the data elsewhere for analysis.

The fourth speaker, panel moderator Sakti Srivastava of Stanford , described how students in the Biodesign program at Stanford prioritize clinical needs and then seek to address them through prototypes . Students in the program recently helped develop the Stanford-Jaipur Knee, a prosthetic limb now in trial in India.  Billed as the $20 knee, it was recognized by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009.

The panel made numerous joking references throughout the session to the “valley of death.” This was described as the long, difficult passage between an idea or even the prototype and the product  actually being made and put to use. Does that mean that the need should always be identified first, someone in the audience asked? One of the panelists said there was no perfect answer. It’s important to have a need in mind, but you don’t want to suppress the innovation that comes out of brainstorming either.

Prepared by Mary Janisch

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