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Bioengineering professor finds her place in global health

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Newswise — In recognition of International Women’s Day (March 8), we’re profiling a bioengineer who has inspired inclusion (this year’s theme) through her global contributions to women’s health.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering at Rice University in Houston, has always been interested in solving women’s health issues. For two decades, it has been doing this on a global scale.

As co-director of Rice360° Institute for Global Health TechnologiesRichards-Kortum focuses her efforts on preventable diseases such as cervical cancer and neonatal/infant mortality that disproportionately affect women in low-income areas.

His laboratory develops imaging technologies to quickly diagnose health problems in low-resource settings, such as a mobile imaging method capable of diagnosing and treating cervical precancer in a single visit. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide, with approximately 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths in 2020.1.

Richards-Kortum also co-leads a global effort to eliminate preventable causes of newborn deaths in sub-Saharan countries. While most African women give birth in health facilities, nearly a million newborns die each year in sub-Saharan Africa.2. These hospitals lack the technology, equipment and trained staff to care for premature babies and newborns in distress, Richards-Kortum said.

To meet these needs, she and bioengineering professor Maria Oden, Ph.D. at Rice University, co-founded the Essential solutions and technologies for the newborn (NEST360°) Partnership. This international team of leading clinical, biomedical and public health experts from 22 institutions collaborates with local ministries of health, finance and education to create robust neonatal intensive care units.

Richards-Kortum says collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches are needed to solve major health challenges. “Introducing health care technologies in low-resource settings requires thinking about how we can strengthen the health care system. This is the kind of problem I find fascinating and rewarding to work on,” she said.

His work in low-income countries has been recognized by several organizations. The American Institute of Medical and Biomedical Engineering selected it for its Pierre Galletti Prize (2016)And Fortune Magazine named her as one of The 50 Greatest Leaders in the World (2017).

An accidental commitment

Richards-Kortum says she got involved in global health by chance. “We were developing a new biomedical engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000. I agreed to teach a biomedical engineering course for non-majors, then added a global health component to make the material more interesting for students who simply wanted to meet their general science requirements.

As she learned more about health inequities and saw the lack of biomedical engineers engaged in the field, she decided to shift the focus of her lab’s work from technologies that solve health problems in settings resources to technologies solving health challenges. in low-resource settings.

A visit to a pediatric AIDS clinic in Malawi in 2005 also enlightened her about the needs.

“I have seen nurses in newborn wards working so hard to care for babies without the necessary tools and technology. At the same time, these hospitals had piles of equipment that broke because they could not withstand the harsh environmental conditions and could not be repaired due to lack of spare parts,” she said. explain.

She returned to Rice University with a renewed commitment to thinking about what more could be done to support education and strengthen biomedical engineering research in low-resource settings.

Richards-Kortum and Oden established the Rice360° Institute for Global Health Technologies in 2007 to provide university students with training opportunities to design and implement new technologies to solve global health challenges. The institute also supports women-led research and ensures that engineers and experts from low-resource backgrounds are included in the design and development process of new technologies.

Later in 2019, the NEST360° program was created by the co-founders working with a large international team. The goal is to design affordable and durable medical devices to support small and sick newborns in African hospitals. Among these devices is an award-winning continuous positive airway pressure device for premature babies who have difficulty breathing.

Point-of-care technologies

Its latest collaborative project involves building a new NIBIB-funded center to develop point-of-care technologies to diagnose oral and cervical cancers at an early stage, when they are still treatable. The collaboration combines technical expertise at Rice with clinical/global health expertise from Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center, and MD Anderson Cancer Care at the University of Texas at Houston. The team also includes technical and clinical partners in Brazil and Mozambique who help identify high-priority needs and develop and implement effective solutions.

Another goal of the new Center for Innovation and Application of Point-of-Care Technologies for Equitable Cancer Care (CITEC) is to make cancer care affordable and accessible. Existing tests for early cancer detection are too complex and/or expensive to implement in primary care settings, especially in medically underserved areas, Richards-Kortum explained.

CITEC is one of the six centers included in the NIBIB-Funded Point-of-Care Technology Research Network which supports the development and acceleration of point-of-care technologies to address unmet medical needs in the United States and around the world.

Richards-Kortum, who was an early member of the NIBIB Advisory Board, said, “One of the things I love about NIBIB is that it supports technology development that makes an important difference to health women and for health equity. »

Strengthening training

The NEST360º team also partnered with local university engineering departments in Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia to create design studios (Maker Spaces) for project-based learning.

“Their engineering curriculums were strong, but they lacked project-based teaching. Now students and faculty are developing technologies to meet their local health needs,” Richards-Kortum said.

Examples of technology developed by students include 80,000 face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic and a model of the female reproductive system used in many countries, including the United States, for hands-on training of health workers for cervical cancer screening. , early detection and point-of-care treatment.

The NEST360° team also collaborated with its partners to develop a pre-service and continuing education program aimed at training clinicians and biomedical technicians in the use, maintenance and repair of technologies to care for new- born small and sick.

“The training had a positive impact; the equipment we delivered to these hospitals works 90% of the time. This helps eliminate the equipment graveyards that our team saw during our first visit to Malawi,” Richards-Kortum said.

The future of women’s health

Despite progress in women’s health globally, many challenges remain.

“There is an important aspect of fairness to these issues. We have already developed many tools, but they are often inaccessible to people who could benefit from them. We need to create better technologies that are both affordable and accessible,” Richards-Kortum said.

She’s encouraged to see more scientists, engineers and medical professionals making women’s health a priority.

“I see a lot of young women who are very committed to ensuring equitable access to health care, especially for women living in underserved settings. This gives me hope for the future.

Study references:

  1. World Health Organization. (2023) Cervical cancer fact sheet. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cervical-cancer
  2. World Health Organization. (2019) Reporting on the progress of each newborn. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/every-newborn-progress-report-2019



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