Finding a solution: A history of helping mankind

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, it’s said. At the UW it’s the other way around. Innovations developed by faculty, students and alumni are helping the University beat a path to the world’s door with the goal of improving the health of millions.

Sometimes, these brilliant ideas are deceptively simple. Take the NIFTY cup for instance. A simple silicon cup that looks like a smaller version of a standard measuring cup, it’s a game-changer when it comes to helping babies with cleft palate or other breast-feeding challenges, especially in parts of the world with few resources. It’s simple to use, easy-to-clean and lets baby control the rate of feeding. This is a big advantage over pre-NIFTY cup days when moms used cups, tablespoons and syringes. NIFTY cups allow more of the expressed breast milk to make it into the baby’s mouth, which can make the difference between life and death.

It was the dogged pursuit of Christy McKinney that turned the NIFTY cup into a reality. During her postdoctoral studies McKinney, ’93, ’06, associate professor of craniofacial medicine in the School of Dentistry, thought a lot about babies who can’t breastfeed and who become sick or died as a result. She connected with a UW professor at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Michael Cunningham, ’91, ’96, who also recognized the problem.

Together they went to PATH, a global health organization in Seattle for its expertise, and worked with a breastfeeding expert at Seattle Children’s to develop the design. That took five years. But what started on a wing and a prayer was tested successfully in India two years ago and is now being produced by Laerdal Global Health, a Norwegian company that sells 50 NIFTY cups for $50 to governments and hospitals in low resource settings.

Other innovative ideas from the UW piggyback on existing technology. One example: turning cellphones into diagnostic devices. In the developing world, anemia is an often-undiagnosed plague caused by malnutrition, iron deficiency, and parasitic disease.

Enter Shwetak Patel’s team. Patel is a MacArthur Fellow and the Washington Research Foundation Entrepreneurship Endowed Professor in Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering. He and his collaborators found a way to use a smartphone camera to determine the body’s level of hemoglobin. That means people can be screened for anemia without a needle stick or an expensive machine that determines levels non-invasively.

By shining the light from the phone’s camera flash through a patient’s finger, an app called HemaApp analyzes the color of his or her blood to estimate hemoglobin concentrations. Researchers tested the app under three different scenarios: using the smartphone camera’s flash alone, in combination with a common incandescent lightbulb, and with a low-cost LED lighting attachment.

HemaApp correctly identified cases of low hemoglobin levels 79 percent of the time using just the phone camera, and 86 percent of the time when aided with additional sources of light. Larger, more sophisticated medical devices got it right 81 percent of the time. HemaApp has been tested in 31 patients to date, and the team is beginning a larger study involving patients around the world. With HemaApp, people who constantly endure needle sticks, such as those with sickle cell or chronic anemia, could find some relief.

Another innovative UW venture got a serendipitous start. One day Jonathan Posner, the Bryan McMinn Endowed associate professor of mechanical engineering, saw a flyer for a Vashon Island company advertising the need for engineering interns to work on clean cookstoves. Posner didn’t know much about cookstoves, but after a call to Peter Scott of the nonprofit, Burn Design Lab, he learned that cookstoves in the developing world are a significant challenge. Four billion people cook using wood or other biomass in simple camp-like fires. The result: there are more than 4 million deaths per year from diseases driven by smoke from these fires. The Department of Energy granted UW and the Burn Design Lab almost $1 million to develop a solution.

The result, called the Kuniokoa, is a cookstove that reduces harmful particulate pollution that increases the risk of contracting asthma, heart disease and other problems. It’s safe to use, burns efficiently and uses half as much wood than many stoves now being used. Burn Manufacturing Company, the for-profit sister company to the nonprofit, operates a manufacturing facility in Kenya, where local residents are hired to manufacture about 120 stoves per day.

UW researchers and their collaborators continue work on a next-generation Tier 4 wood-burning stove, the highest performing stove rated on efficiency and fuel use, total emissions, indoor emissions and safety.

“We think this is a viable solution where no others really exist,” says Posner.

A history of helping mankind

Finding solutions to the world’s health problems is nothing new for the UW. In just about every imaginable field, faculty researchers and their students have tackled the most vexing problems facing humankind and come up with an eye-opening array of solutions.

Here’s a quick list of some research achievements that have made lives better:

Long-term kidney dialysis. Professor Belding Scribner came up with the idea for implanting a Teflon shunt into patients with kidney failure. Professor Albert Babb then helped invent a home dialysis machine.

The Hepatitis B vaccine. Created by Professor Ben Hall and his team.

Bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia. Developed by Professor E. Donnall Thomas.

The first published definition of fetal alcohol syndrome by professors David Smith and Ann Stressguth and student Kenneth Jones.

Transgenic mice. Developed by biochemist Richard Palmiter. Allows researchers to investigate disorders caused by errors in the genetic code.

A treadmill test to diagnose and evaluate heart and lung disease. Developed by cardiologist Robert A. Bruce, known as the father if exercise cardiology. He and staff engineer Wayne Quinton developed the first medical treadmills.

The Seattle Foot, a specially engineered prosthesis that allows lower limb amputees to run and engage in active movements. Developed by UW orthopedic surgeon Ernest M. Burgess and colleagues.

A device that employed Doppler ultrasound to diagnose cardiac conditions. Created by Don Baker, electrical engineer. The creation turned ultrasound into the most vital, cost-effective diagnostic tool in the world.

An osteoporosis diagnostic test described as the industry “gold standard.” Developed by David Eyre and his group.