At current rates of progress, it will take more than 150 years before a baby born in Africa has the same chance of survival as one born in the United States, but an international team of global health experts has mapped out a plan to do it in 10 years. All it needs to get started is $100 million.
The Rice University-based team’s odds of getting the money dropped to one-in-eight with today's announcement that Rice 360° Institute for Global Health and its partners are among the semifinalists for the MacArthur Foundation's innovative 100&Change competition. A $100 million grant will be awarded to a single proposal that promises to make measurable progress toward solving one of the world’s significant problems. The eight semifinalists announced today were selected from more than 1,900 applicants. The foundation plans to select the winner this fall.
“A million African babies die each year, and we know that 85 percent of those deaths could be prevented with relatively simple technologies that keep babies warm, help them breathe and help doctors diagnose and manage infections and other conditions,” said Rice 360° Director Rebecca Richards-Kortum, who is leading a team that includes physicians, engineers and business and entrepreneurial experts from three continents.
Dr. Queen Dube, a clinical pediatric specialist at Malawi’s largest hospital and faculty member at the University of Malawi College of Medicine, said, “We have the human workforce trained in all these interventions, but the technology is lacking. Every morning you go to work full of this knowledge, knowing what actually works, and then you come to work and you're confronted with 50 or 60 babies. You don't have the right technology. You cannot do that which you were trained to do, and a baby dies in front of you. It's very frustrating.”
Rice 360° began working with Dube and other African partners 10 years ago to design robust, inexpensive machines and technologies specifically for African hospitals. The group's efforts have attracted national and international awards and set the stage for Rice 360°’s bold 100&Change plan to develop and implement a 17-piece Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies (NEST) package -- an integrated group of life-saving neonatal technologies.
Rice 360° co-director Maria Oden, an engineering educator who has trained hundreds of Rice students to solve global health problems, said, “Every hospital I've visited in sub-Saharan Africa has a room I call the equipment graveyard, which is filled with expensive, donated medical equipment that is broken beyond repair simply because it was not designed to work in Africa.”
Oden said the idea for NEST grew from Rice 360°'s efforts to develop and implement appropriate technologies, like a breathing machine that's now used in more than 20 countries, and from its increasingly global collaboration with experts in London, California, Illinois and countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
The breathing machine, called the Pumani bCPAP, was licensed by NEST team member 3rd Stone Design of San Rafael, Calif., and is now on the market in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
“In working alongside Rice 360° to refine, produce and launch the Pumani, we've now been able to bring a much-needed product to clinicians around the world,” said Robert Miros, CEO of 3rd Stone Design. “It’s a huge step for low-cost medical technologies to actually make it to market, and with this proposal, we can pave the way for a suite of neonatal technologies to scale.”
NEST collaborator Kara Palamountain, a faculty member at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said, “The key to this project’s success does not lie with any one technology. To end preventable newborn deaths in Africa, we must provide access to comprehensive care. The NEST bundle of technologies will enable that holistic care, and there are clear efficiencies in developing and commercializing these technologies as a bundle of goods.”
NEST collaborator Joy Lawn, professor and director of the MARCH (Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive and Child Health) Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said, “The 17 technologies, when paired with appropriate clinical care, could prevent most newborn deaths in Africa. Our team already has more than half of those products in the late stages of development.”
The Rice 360°-led consortium enables each partner to contribute its unique expertise toward the goal. Lawn, a pediatrician with more than 25 years of clinical and research experience in Africa, will lead efforts to evaluate the impact of NEST technologies.
Theresa Mkandawire, dean of engineering at the University of Malawi Polytechnic, and Oden will use existing twinned undergraduate design studios at Rice and Malawi Polytechnic to develop and refine prototypes for clinical study and evaluation. Dube and fellow pediatricians Elizabeth Molyneux and Josephine Langton will oversee clinical studies and evaluation at the University of Malawi College of Medicine. Palamountain will focus on determining user needs, obtaining feedback about prototypes and developing commercialization plans. Finally, 3rd Stone Design will lead efforts to manufacture and gain regulatory approval for NEST technologies.
Oden said the group is committed to ending preventable newborn deaths in Africa and to creating a culture of biomedical innovation there. “There are key educational and entrepreneurial components that will ensure that NEST technologies can eventually be locally sourced, produced and repaired," she said. "More importantly, they'll also prepare a cadre of young entrepreneurs who are ready to lead the next generation of global health care innovation in Africa.”
The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is one of the nation's largest independent foundations. It supports creative people, effective institutions and influential networks building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.