Students Win Innovation Prize for Improving Surgery on Newborns

Device may allow surgeons in low-income countries to correct rare, often fatal birth defect.

Published May 05, 2021 under Education News

Written by Michael Penn

Caroline Salzman and Arushi Biswas, undergraduate students in Duke’s biomedical engineering program

A team of Duke students that is working to make life-saving surgery possible for infants with a rare birth defect has won the top prize at the 2021 Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge.

The award-winning innovation is part of a larger collaboration between Duke and Makerere University in Uganda to enable surgeons in low-resource settings to operate on newborns with gastroschisis, a birth defect in which babies are born with their intestines outside the body. While the condition can be corrected with surgery, it is often not detected prior to birth in places such as Uganda, where prenatal screenings are infrequent and many births take place at home. By the time babies arrive at a surgical center, their organs are often damaged, and nearly all babies with gastroschisis in sub-Saharan Africa die as a result.

Over the past two years, biomedical engineering students at Duke and Makerere developed a low-cost silo to cover and protect an infant’s organs until surgery can be performed. The silo was one of six student-led innovations selected as finalists for the Bay Area challenge.

Arushi Biswas and Caroline Salzman, undergraduate students in Duke’s biomedical engineering program, presented the silo during the virtual competition. The Duke team won a $10,000 prize, which will be used to begin clinical trials of the silo in Uganda.

“The students have really moved this project forward with their passion and dedication,” says Tamara Fitzgerald, associate professor of surgery and global health and leader of the project. “So many colleagues from Uganda and Duke have worked together to obtain funding and generate ideas along every step of the process.  This funding will allow us to move forward with a clinical study in Uganda.”

The Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge is hosted by the University of California-Berkeley School of Public Health and Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, in partnership with the Bay Area Global Health Alliance, the Universities of California at Davis and San Francisco, and the HealthRoots Foundation for Global Health.

“We were so impressed by your proposed solution for addressing gastroschisis in low-resource settings,” the contest organizers posted in a tweet congratulating the Deuke team.

Collaborators on the project include: Robert Ssekitoleko, Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Makerere University; Julius Mugaga, a biomedical engineer at Makerere University; Anne Wesonga, pediatric surgeon at Mulago Hospital in Uganda; and Ann Saterbak, professor of engineering at Duke. Harold Leraas and Sarah Commander, surgical residents at Duke, and Siddhesh Zadey, a 2021 graduate of the Duke Master in Science in Global Health program, recently completed a study of the silos in animal models, paving the way for clinical trials.