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Rugged, easy-to-use AutoSyP set for 18-month clinical study in Malawi

Rice 360º wins key funding for low-cost syringe pump

One of the most promising technologies from Rice University’s global health initiative — a low-cost, rugged syringe pump called AutoSyP — has won grant funding to make the transition from a promising prototype to a proven life-saving medical device.

Former Rice 360° Global Futures Fellow Alexa Juarez ’14 worked with physicians and nurses at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, in 2013 on a pilot clinical study that showed AutoSyP’s potential for saving the lives of both babies and mothers. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

AutoSyP is one of six technologies chosen from more than 650 applications for an 18-month validation grant by Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development, a philanthropic partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and aid agencies from Norway, Canada, Great Britain and Korea that is working to end childbirth-related deaths of both mothers and babies.

The funding will allow a team from Rice 360º Institute for Global Health and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, to conduct an 18-month clinical validation of AutoSyP. The study also will include planning for a rollout of AutoSyP to all Malawi central and district hospitals.

“There is broad consensus that syringe pumps are an essential component of quality neonatal and maternal care, and this funding from Saving Lives at Birth will allow us to validate AutoSyp’s efficacy to meet this need and to show that AutoSyP can save many lives,” said Rice bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, co-director of Rice 360° and Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor.

AutoSyP is a rugged, low-power syringe pump designed for low-resource hospitals in the developing world. Prototypes cost up to 10 times less than traditional syringe pumps, and AutoSyP is designed to keep working throughout prolonged power outages. (Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University)

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 300,000 mothers die every year during and following pregnancy and childbirth. Virtually all of these deaths are preventable and occur in developing countries like Malawi.

AutoSyP was designed in 2013 by undergraduates in Rice 360°, an award-winning, engineering education program that prepares students to solve complex problems through real-world challenges related to global health. AutoSyP is a rugged, accurate, affordable option for developing-world hospitals that lack syringe pumps, machines that deliver intravenous drugs or fluids in controlled amounts, typically very slowly over several hours. Syringe pumps are standard in U.S. hospitals, but most models are too pricy for low-resource hospitals, and virtually all models are electrically powered and unable to withstand frequent power spikes. In countries like Malawi, where electrical outages and power spikes are common, even donated syringe pumps quickly become broken beyond repair.

AutoSyP was specifically designed to address these problems. Prototypes cost up to 10 times less than typical hospital-model syringe pumps, and AutoSyP incorporates a spring-and-gear system that allows it to keep working during prolonged power outages. The machine also is designed to work with any model of syringe.

“The validation study will focus on optimizing AutoSyP for the delivery of magnesium sulfate for the treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia in maternity wards at four hospitals,” said Rice 360° Co-director Maria Oden. Pre-eclampsia is a disorder of pregnancy that’s marked by high blood pressure and can lead to seizures and death. The standard treatment is controlled release of magnesium sulfate. If syringe pumps are unavailable, the alternative is multiple large-volume injections of magnesium sulfate directly into the buttocks, an incredibly painful process that also can result in dangerous complications, Oden said.

“Once it is proven and in use worldwide, we estimate AutoSyP could improve care each year for 3 million women with pre-eclampsia,” said Oden, professor in the practice of bioengineering and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, the undergraduate design lab where AutoSyP was created.

Richards-Kortum said AutoSyP will also be a key technology in Rice 360°’s Nursery of the Future, a project to develop an affordable suite of 17 technologies that can prevent up to 82 percent of newborn deaths. One of these, a low-cost bubble CPAP machine that won a 2012 validation grant from Saving Lives at Birth, is already in use at all Malawian government hospitals and at sites in 19 additional countries. Rice 360° estimates that a global deployment of AutoSyP could improve care for as many as 15 million newborns each year.

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