Nursery of the Future

HOUSTON, Texas. (KFSN) -- Worldwide, premature birth is the leading cause of death for children under five years of age. It is especially devastating in developing countries where people lack access to the high-priced technology to save their baby's life.

Now, professors and students at Rice University are working on developing a nursery of the future, where high-tech, life-saving medical technology is designed for a fraction of the cost, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies every year. Here's how they are testing out their designs in Malawi, Africa, where nearly 20 percent of babies are born prematurely.

The cries of dozens of premature babies echo in this neonatal unit in Malawi, Africa, but underneath that is a more reassuring sound: the steady hum of a life-saving CPAP machine.

It's a machine that would cost more than $6,000 in the U.S., but a team of engineering students at Rice University designed this one for only $400.

Maria Oden, PhD, a professor of engineering at Rice University told Ivanhoe, "If we can provide support for physicians and nurses who are caring for babies in this environment we can have a real impact on mortality of the newborn."

Oden is one of the engineering professors leading students in an effort to create a so-called "Nursery of the Future" with a focus on designing low-cost medical technologies that hospitals in developing countries need most.

Oden explained, "This care really focuses on a small number of areas: breathing, warmth, basic medically testing, hydration; so really basic needs like that."

Sarah Hooper, an undergraduate student at Rice University, detailed, "Our device warms up the air for them to body temperature so they don't have to expend any extra energy to warm up the air."

Another undergraduate student, Renata Wettermann, said, "They can just focus on growing and developing normally."

Undergrads like Hooper and Wettermann design their projects in class, then fly to Malawi to test them.

"Being able to actually go and observe the kind of daily practices really gave us a much better insight into what sort of devices succeed," said Hooper.

Students and professors believe they can develop a nursery with complete life-saving technologies for $10,000, much less than the cost of just one ventilator in the U.S.

Professors have identified 17 technologies for essential newborn care. So far, nine of them are in development at Rice University, including an apnea monitor for premature babies and a device that simplifies the delivery of intravenous medication and requires no electricity.
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