Could a low-cost screening device connected to a cellphone save thousands of women and children from anaemia-related deaths and disabilities?
That’s the goal of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering undergraduates who’ve developed a non-invasive way to identify women with this dangerous blood disorder in developing nations. The device, HemoGlobe, is designed to convert the existing cellphones of health workers into a “prick-free” system for detecting and reporting anaemia at the community level.
The device’s sensor, placed on a patient’s fingertip, shines different wavelengths of light through the skin to measure the haemoglobin level in the blood. On a phone’s screen, a community health worker quickly sees a colour-coded test result, indicating cases of anaemia, from mild to moderate and severe.
If anaemia is detected, a patient would be encouraged to follow a course of treatment, ranging from taking iron supplements to visiting a clinic or hospital for potentially lifesaving measures. After each test, the phone would send an automated text message with a summary of the results to a central server, which would produce a real-time map showing where anaemia is prevalent. This information could facilitate follow-up care and help health officials to allocate resources where the need is most urgent.
Soumyadipta Acharya, an assistant research professor in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Biomedical Engineering and the project’s faculty advisor and principal investigator, said the device could be important in reducing anaemia-related deaths in developing countries. International health experts estimate that anaemia contributes to 100 000 maternal deaths and 600 000 newborn deaths annually.
“This device has the potential to be a game-changer,” Acharya said. “It will equip millions of health care workers across the globe to quickly and safely detect and report this debilitating condition in pregnant women and newborns.”
The HemoGlobe student inventors have estimated their cellphone-based systems could be produced for $10 to $20 each (R83 to R166 each). At the recent Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development competition, the potential public health benefits of this device won over the judges, who awarded a $250 000 (R2,1 million) seed grant to the Johns Hopkins students’ project. The event, which attracted more than 500 entrants from 60 countries, was sponsored by prominent global health organisations, including the US Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Only 12 entrants received seed grants.
“When we thought about the big-name corporations and non-profit groups we were competing against, we were amazed and surprised to find out that our team had won,” said George Chen, 19, of Hacienda Heights, California, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering. Chen attended the 14 July announcement in Seattle, along with Acharya and team members Noah Greenbaum and Justin Rubin.
For a biomedical engineering design team class assignment, the students spent a year brainstorming and building a prototype. The seed grant will allow the team to refine its technology and support field testing next year in Kenya by Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins affiliate that provides global health training and services for women and their families. Jhpiego sponsored the HemoGlobe project through a partnership with the university’s Centre for Bioengineering Innovation and Design.
Team member Greenbaum, 21, of Watchung, NJ, a senior majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering, has continued working on the anaemia system this summer.
“The first year we just focused on proving that the technology worked,” he said. “Now, we have a greater challenge: to prove that it can have a real impact by detecting anaemia and making sure the mothers get the care they need.”
The student inventors were looking for a new way to curb a stubborn health problem in developing nations. Anaemia occurs when a person has too few healthy red blood cells, which carry critical oxygen throughout the body. This is often due to a lack of iron, and therefore a lack of haemoglobin, the iron-based protein that helps red blood cells store and release oxygen. Anaemic mothers face many complications before and during birth, including death from blood loss associated with the delivery. In addition, a baby that survives a birth from an anaemic mother may face serious health problems.
Health officials in developing countries have tried to respond by making iron supplements widely available. According to Acharya, however, the problem of anaemia remains intractable. “So we looked at it from a different angle,” he said.
In places where medical care is easily accessible, doctors routinely test pregnant women for anaemia and prescribe treatment, including routine iron supplementation. But in developing regions where medical help is not always nearby, the condition may go undetected. Community health workers with limited training do, however, serve these areas.
“The team members realised that every community health worker already carries a powerful computer in their pocket – their cellphone,” Acharya said. “So we didn’t have to build a computer for our screening device, and we didn’t have to build a display. Our low-cost device will use the existing cellphones of health workers to estimate and report haemoglobin levels.”
A provisional patent covering the invention has been obtained through the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer office.