Necessity’s inventions: design challenge takes aim at Ebola

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On a Thursday evening in early October, as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was starting to make international headlines, nearly two hundred students and professors gathered in an auditorium at Columbia’s engineering school to learn how they could help. Earlier in the day, Mary C. Boyce, dean of Columbia Engineering, and Linda P. Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, had sent an e-mail to all members of their schools, inviting anyone interested in developing “low-cost, technology-driven” solutions to the crisis to come out and learn more. Those who received the e-mail were encouraged to spread the word to anyone else at the University who might want to help.

“We weren’t sure if anybody would come,” says Boyce. “It was during midterm exams, after all. But we wanted to move fast.”

The organizers ended up getting an enormous response, with students and faculty from across the entire University turning out. The Columbia Design Challenge was on.

The meeting began with W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health, describing a few ideas he had for inventions that might help field workers in West Africa do their jobs more safely and effectively. Lipkin, who is one of the world’s leading microbe hunters, had firsthand experience working in such situations, having been on the ground in Asia during the SARS epidemic and in Saudi Arabia during the outbreak of the respiratory virus MERS; he knew many people now risking their lives in the fight against Ebola. Over the previous few weeks, he told the audience, he had heard from his colleagues that much of the equipment they were using was ill-matched to the conditions. The polyethylene-coated suits they wore to protect themselves from infected bodily fluids, for example, became excruciatingly hot in the tropical sun, forcing them to disrobe and cool off every forty-five minutes or so. They were consequently changing out of several contaminated suits each day, increasing their risk of touching infected fluid. Their method of disinfecting the suits — spraying one another with bleach before disrobing — was also problematic, since they could easily miss spots.

Participants in the Columbia Design Challenge brainstorm inventions to be used in the fight against Ebola. / Photograph by Jane Nisselson / Columbia Engineering

“Maybe you could build some sort of cubicle they could step into and get sprayed down more thoroughly,” said Lipkin. “They’d have to be able to breathe the whole time, of course. I don’t know if that’s feasible. You’re the engineers.” 

Another challenge facing the field workers was how to disinfect their cell phones and handheld diagnostic tools. The current strategy was to put them in ziplock bags, pour in chemical powders and water to produce chlorine gas, and then run away before the bags burst open.

“You need to get out of there so you don’t inhale the toxic gas,” Lipkin said. “This is insane.”

He imagined a solution: a sturdier container, perhaps made of thick plastic, into which electronic devices could be placed for safe disinfection. “This would be extremely helpful,” he said. “Health-care workers are dying because they don’t have good decontamination procedures.”

Rachel Moresky, another Mailman faculty member in close contact with people working in West Africa, brought the conversation back to the hazmat suits. The suits were problematic not just because they couldn’t be worn for long periods of time, she said, but also because they hampered health-care workers’ ability to perform even simple tasks while wearing them.

“Imagine trying to insert an IV into a patient’s arm when you’re wearing this space suit with three pairs of gloves in 120-degree heat and your goggles are fogging up with sweat,” she said.

Lipkin piped up again: “Maybe we could devise some way to keep them cool inside the suit. That would be huge.”

The attendees, after listening to descriptions of these and other logistical challenges, were told they had twenty-four hours to come up with solutions. Anyone wishing to participate in the design challenge, sponsored jointly by the engineering and public-health schools, was invited to pitch ideas to a panel of professors and safety experts the next afternoon. Those who brought the most promising ideas would receive small seed grants to create prototypes, which would need to be ready for testing within a month. Along the way, Lipkin and others would solicit feedback on the inventions from colleagues in West Africa.

Lipkin’s parting instruction: keep it simple. Think twice, he said, before trying to develop new diagnostic tools, therapeutic drugs, or other complex technologies that major companies were already working on. Focus instead on quick-and-dirty inventions that companies were unlikely to develop for a lack of potential profit.

“Think to yourself,” he said, “what can I achieve in a short time frame, on a very small budget, that will save lives?”

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