May 1, 2013 at 9:20 AM ET
Getting the correct dose of liquid medicine into a syringe is a challenge — just ask any parent treating a toddler's fever at 3 am. Enter the DoseRight Syringe Clip, a seemingly simple L-shaped plastic gizmo that fits into the barrel of a standard oral syringe to ensure accurate dosages. It was designed by students, and will likely save lives.
The gadget is the brainchild of Rice University's Beyond Traditional Borders, an engineering design initiative established and run by bioengineering professors Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden with the goal of developing and improving access to health innovations for the world's poorest communities. On Wednesday, they were honored with the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation.
"The philosophy behind the program is really to engage students in designing solutions to real global health challenges," Richards-Kortum explained to NBC News.
"Maria and I spend a lot of time shadowing clinicians who are delivering healthcare in the developing world and trying to understand what are the challenges that they face in delivering care and then we turn those challenges into design problems for our students."
In addition to the DoseRight clip, the students in the Beyond Traditional Borders program have created an inexpensive machine that keeps airways open in infants with respiratory problems and a microscope that can quickly and easily diagnose diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.
Problems ... and solutions
The problem of misdosing is particularly problematic in developing countries where caregivers often lack reading and math skills and precisely dosed liquid anti-retroviral medications are necessary for treating HIV-infected children.
The DoseRight clips come in a variety color-coded sizes that anyone can use regardless of literacy level. The patent-pending technology has been licensed to a private company that, in partnership with government and non-profit agencies, is distributing clips to a program in Swaziland that helps prevent transmission of HIV/AIDs from mothers to children.
The clips are also available to consumers and hospitals via 3rd Stone Design.
"That's an example of a great technology where it's in many ways equally useful in the developed world as it is in the developing world because misdosing of medicine is a problem in many, many settings," Richards-Kortum said.
The program's focus is fixed on the developing world, but the prospect of an innovation's success in the developed world helps attract commercial interest. "For the program to be successful, that has to happen," Oden told NBC News. In fact, several students are inventors on patent applications.
Beyond Traditional Borders' rugged bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure system (bCPAP) breathing aid can help prevent respiratory failure in newborn babies, which accounts for most of the nearly 5 million neonatal deaths in developing countries. Existing commercial devices retail for $6,000, the professors noted, but a commercial partner is helping to scale up production, so that this one will sell for just $400.
Public and private partners including the the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are working with the program to increase production and place it in rural hospitals throughout the African country of Malawi.
Other innovations include the Global Focus Microscope, which uses battery-operated LED lighting to achieve fluorescent microscopy for disease detection. Fluorescent microscopes in the developed world sell for upwards of $40,000. The Global Focus Microscope can be manufactured for $240, according to the program.
TheDay One Project
Richards-Kortum and Oden will donate their $100,000 prize money to the Day One Project, which aims to turn a neonatal nursery in Blantyre, Malawi, "into an innovation hub" to develop and scale up "technologies that are needed to help premature babies survive and then thrive," Richards-Kortum said.
The bCPAP device, she added, is just one of the first pieces of technology that could make the Day One Project a success. The donation of the prize money to it takes Beyond Traditional Borders full circle.
Beyond Traditional Borders started when Richards-Kortum and Oden were invited on a two-week trip to Malawi to visit clinics that care for HIV-positive children and their families.
"We met so many people who just work and work and work to deliver the best quality care that they can on a base of really limited resources," said Richards-Kortum. "We saw so many ways that we could hopefully help them do their jobs more effectively by developing technologies — that then also improve education for our students."
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.