In January 2012, clinical trials for the bubble CPAP machine designed by Rice University students were starting in Malawi’s central hospital.
Maria Oden was there, accompanied by Jocelyn Brown, a 2010 bioengineering graduate from Rice. It was the first day of training the hospital staff to use the device, which helps keep infants’ lungs open so they can breathe more easily. Respiratory distress syndrome is a leading cause of infant mortality. A doctor approached Oden and Brown, saying a baby girl in the emergency room was having difficulty breathing. Was the team ready to use the CPAP? A clinical trial suddenly became an exercise in life saving.
“It was amazing,” said Oden, teaching professor in bioengineering (BIOE) and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) at Rice. “Within minutes, the baby was breathing comfortably. Within an hour, the mother was nursing her. That’s the moment when I realized we were making a difference. All the work and planning was going to pay off.”
The bubble CPAP device is part of the 17-piece Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies (NEST) package — an integrated group of life-saving neonatal technologies. Rice 360° Institute for Global Health’s NEST is one of four finalists in the running for a $100-million, 100&Change grant from the MacArthur Foundation, with the winner to be announced in December.
In Malawi, the bubble CPAP device was renamed “Pumani,” meaning “breathe restfully” in Chichewa, a language spoken in that country. Pumani costs 105 times less than traditional CPAP, and Rice 360°, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, the University of Malawi College of Medicine and the Malawi Ministry of Health have distributed it to 36 government and church-affiliated hospitals.
“More than a million African babies die each year, and we know that 75 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,” Oden said.
All of the devices in the technology package assembled by Rice 360°, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, are designed to be low-cost, rugged and easy to use while also being effective in under-resourced parts of the world. Eight of the technologies that make up the NEST package, including Pumani, started as undergraduate design team projects at Rice.
Most of the NEST devices were worked on by multiple teams, whose members total more than 200 across a decade. Take Kasupe, a low-cost, rugged syringe pump. Its first iteration, focused on delivering safe volumes of fluid, came in 2008. Later, another team redesigned and renamed it IV DRIP (Dehydration Relief in Pediatrics). By 2013, the project had morphed into Zikomo and then AutoSyp, with the help of two senior design teams. This evolved yet again into Kasupe, which won an 18-month clinical validation grant in 2016 from Saving Lives at Birth. In all, nine teams worked on some phase of the device’s development.
“So much learning, with lot of passion behind it, took place in the making of all these devices. Students choose these projects because they care about solving a problem,” Oden said.