Engineers Test Student Designs in Africa


A team from Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Medical Center traveled to Uganda this summer to test student-designed medical devices intended to improve health care for infants and mothers.
Biomedical Engineering (BME) Lecturer Aaron Kyle, together with Gary Zhang, BME BS ’11, and Helen Towers, associate clinical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Columbia University Medical Center, traveled to Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda, to test several neonatal care devices designed by Columbia BME senior design students.
“Over the past year,” Dr. Kyle says, “Professor Elizabeth Hillman and I have been working with Dr. Margaret Nakakeeto-Kijjambu, a prominent neonatologist in Uganda, and Dr. Richard Polin, director of the Division of Neonatology at CUMC, to develop appropriate technologies for neonatal care in Uganda. Professor Hillman and I thought it would be great to have our senior-year students use their engineering acumen to address the urgent baby-care needs in low resource settings such as Uganda.”
Half of the 2010-2011 BME Senior Design students elected to develop projects targeted at helping newborns and their mothers in the developing world. These included a neonatal transport unit to prevent hypothermia during transport from rural settings to urban hospitals; a low cost, high-efficiency, LED-based phototherapy device for jaundice treatment; and a piezoelectric mat that could be used to non-invasively measure neonatal vital signs.
The monitoring mat, developed by Team Uzima—Zhang and fellow classmates Morris Michael, Heidi Ahmed, Pankil Desai, and Jeff Yang — recently won first place in the 2011 Global Health Technologies Competition at Rice University. Uzima was also awarded an NCIIA Advanced E-team grant targeted towards projects that are ready for transition towards developing commercially viable products.
“There are limited technological resources to care for critically ill infants in Uganda,” says Dr. Polin. “Team Uzima’s device will have immediate application in the newborn ICU at Mulago Hospital and will allow nurses and physicians to better monitor their babies. Much of the current monitoring equipment is outdated and/or non-functional.”
Kyle notes that, according to the World Health Organization, Uganda ranks 186th out of 191 countries for level of health. The average life expectancy in Uganda is 42 years. Health care expenditures are minimal with only $18 USD spent per capita annually in 2006, compared to $6,931 USD in the United States.
Patients are treated using minimal or outdated medical equipment because of lack of funds and trained personnel to operate and repair this equipment. In 2008, the infant mortality rate for babies under one year old was 7.6 percent in Uganda compared to 0.7 percent in the U.S. The ICU mortality rate within the Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest government-run hospital, is 20 percent. Without adequate perinatal care, these infants may die or face life-long disabilities that can critically impair them and their families.
"I've trained the staff at Mulago and the district hospitals to care for high risk newborns, but there is still a persistent need for medical devices that will keep stabilized babies healthy,” says Dr. Nakakeeto-Kijjambu. “There are usually 60 to 70 babies in the Special Care Baby Unit with only two or three nurses, so there is a critical need for devices like the Uzima vital-signs-monitoring mat to alert the nurses of babies who might be in respiratory, cardiac, or thermal distress. Many of our babies are jaundiced, and with only two commercial phototherapy units, the Columbia BME phototherapy devices could provide for more widespread, consistent treatment. And the Columbia-developed transport unit will be critical for keeping babies warm as they travel from outlying district hospitals."
During this initial trip, Kyle, Zhang, and Towers presented the transport unit, phototherapy device, and vital signs monitor to several Ugandan dignitaries, including Jane Acheng, director general of the Ugandan Ministry of Health, and Julius Butime, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Makerere University. The Columbia Engineering team also demonstrated the devices at rural district hospitals throughout Uganda. “The people we met with in Uganda were very excited about the neonatal care devices,” Kyle adds. “We will use their feedback to refine our designs with the goal of having them ready for deployment in Uganda by summer or fall of 2012.”
“This has been and continues to be a really exciting and rewarding project,” says Zhang. “It’s great to work on something as an undergraduate and know we’ll improve the lives of newborns in places as far away as Uganda.”
Please contact Dr. Kyle ( with any inquiries about the ongoing Senior Design Global Health Technology efforts in Columbia BME.


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