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updated 3/31/2011 1:19:16 PM ET 2011-03-31T17:19:16

A solution as simple as a pregnancy test could prevent millions of deaths. But rather than tell women whether they should start buying baby clothes, the new test screens for hidden health dangers that threaten the lives of expectant mothers or their unborn babies.

Dipstick tests change color in response to a woman's urine and can warn of possible conditions ranging from the high blood sugar of diabetes during pregnancy to urinary tract infections. Yet costs keep such tests from being widespread in the developing world, where 6.3 million pregnant women or their unborn children die worldwide each year.

That dilemma drove an eight-member team of graduate students at Johns Hopkins University to find a cheaper alternative that could spread the benefits of medical innovation.

"Looking at reverse-engineering the dipstick, we found that most of the cost was in the dipstick and not the [chemical] reagents," said Sherri Hall, a biomedical engineering master's student at Johns Hopkins University. "Then we thought: 'Why not put reagents in a highlighter marker and skip the manufacturing cost of the dipstick?'"

Chemical reagents in the dipsticks react to certain molecules that may signify different health conditions. Having the necessary reagents in highlighter form allows health care workers to simply mark pieces of paper, so that women can urinate on the paper slips and let the urine tell the tale.

A $20 kit with seven markers capable of doing 2,800 screening tests in total would lead to an average price of just two-thirds of a cent per test. That represents a huge drop in price from the usual 20 cents per dipstick test.

Reality checkup

Complications arise from figuring out how to make the tests easier to read. The student team wants to replace the usual color scale with a simple color change set at a certain threshold. If a pregnant woman triggers that color change in the test, she can be referred to hospitals for diagnosis and treatment.

"What we really want is for these to be usable by semi-trained, illiterate health care workers," said Mary O'Grady, a biomedical engineering master's student at Johns Hopkins University.

Current work has focused on screening tests for gestational diabetes, urinary tract infections, malnutrition or starvation, iron deficiency and infant jaundice. One test for high blood pressure is already going through field tests in Nepal.

Rather than just sit around in the lab, the student innovators have also gone out to different countries to scope out the conditions of people who may use such screening tests. O'Grady went to India last summer, while Hall spent time in Tanzania.

"We're getting an idea of the human clinical factors, what we need to do to have these tests adopted, the local health care systems, how they function, how they can accept this [screening] kit, and how to tailor the kit to their needs," O'Grady told InnovationNewsDaily.

Setting the date

But engineering challenges also remain. None of the screening tests can rely upon refrigeration in many developing countries. The marker reagents need to stay on the paper without getting washed out by the urine. Future tests could also figure out the shelf life of the markers and see how well they stand up to heat and humidity.

The team is working with a Johns Hopkins University nonprofit called Jhpiego to get more of the tests up and running soon. Jhpiego recently joined up with the Norway India Partnership Initiative as another step toward getting the potentially life-changing innovations deployed by 2012.

"Some tests are lagging behind others," O'Grady said. "But it's definitely very motivating and encouraging to see people show so much interest."

The Antenatal Screening Kit team represents one of 15 student teams or start-ups showcased in the Open Minds competition hosted by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance in partnership with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The public event took place at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on March 26.

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu.

This article was provided by InnovationNewsDaily , a sister site of TechNewsDaily.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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