Duke Student's Idea For Treating Jaundice In Newborns Could Impact Millions In Developing World

April 23, 2006

PhotoGenesis launches as a not-for-profit after winning Duke student business plan competition

A team led by Duke University engineering graduate student Vijay Anand has developed an affordable LED-based jaundice treatment for newborns that will cost roughly 95 percent less than currently available technology. The technology, called Photogenesis, won the $100,000 Duke University Engineering World Health CUREs competition. Anand will receive an executive salary and one year of incubation in Duke's Pratt School of Engineering to facilitate product development and fuel global market development.

Jaundice, known for the yellowing of a baby's skin and eyes, is a common medical condition in newborn babies caused by an excess of bilirubin in the blood. Early treatment with phototherapy typically prevents serious complications such as brain damage or even death, however in developing-world hospitals such treatment is often unavailable due to lack of education and the high cost of phototherapy equipment, referred to as bili-lights, which can run upwards of $5,000.

"Low-cost bili-lights could help revolutionize treatment for newborn jaundice in developing-world countries," said Robert Malkin, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and founder of the CUREs competition. CUREs encourages students to develop non-profit businesses that improve health care in developing countries.

Phototherapy in the form of the bili-light consists of a series of fluorescent lights placed over a baby's bed to help eliminate bilirubin found just beneath the surface of the skin. Exposure to the light changes the structure of the bilirubin, making it easier to be excreted by the liver.

"It is sometimes difficult for medical professionals in the West to appreciate the level of need in the poorest countries. Infant mortality in Afghanistan is the worst in the world, where 20 percent of babies born alive die before age five," said Doug Franco, executive director of Orchard International, a Palo Alto, CA, non-profit that provides health assistance, education and emergency relief to Afghanistan and other countries. Orchard International intends to help Anand with field trials and distribution abroad for PhotoGenesis.

Currently, bili-light equipment can range anywhere from $1,800 to more than $5,000—making the cost to treat jaundice in developing-world countries prohibitive for many hospital clinicians.

The team headed by Master of Engineering management student Vijay Anand designed will cost about $500 each. BME students Amit Joshipura, Randy Yamada, and Ryan Werstuik were involved in the design. Tackle Design, a Durham industrial design firm, aided in the original design and will assist with the manufacture of the device.

"The investment of a few hundred dollars for PhotoGenesis' product might save dozens of lives per year in Kabul, Basrah, Banda Aceh, Addis Ababa, or one hundred other Asian or African cities," said Franco.

Anand's vision is that PhotoGenesis will develop and distribute health care technology solutions that are appropriate for underserved countries. Best-of-breed technology is often impractical in such places, but even very basic medical equipment can save lives. He expects countries such as Afghanistan and Ethiopia, as well as others in Southeast Asia and East Africa to be the primary targets for initial impact.

CUREs is an educational, interdisciplinary business plan competition through Duke University Engineering World Health designed to create sustainable social ventures based on innovative technologies that address the medical needs of the developing world. The winner receives $100,000–the nation's largest award in a not-for-profit business competition.

Duke University-Engineering World Health is a non-profit organization that impacts underserved communities around the world. Through its "Cycle of Caring," Duke-EWH places students and volunteers in hospitals in poor nations to repair and install medical equipment; it serves as a delivery stream for donated medical equipment; and it conducts research to develop appropriate technology that impacts the needs of poor nations.

The Competition for Underserved and Resource-poor Economies (CUREs) is an outgrowth of that research mission, launched in cooperation with Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, which promotes hands-on, outside-the-classroom learning experiences to foster leadership and cultural awareness.