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Cheap Ultrasound Unit Starts As Class Project

November 12, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Obstetric Ultrasound
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A team of University of Washington students has won a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations grant to test its low-cost ultrasound system, intended for use by midwives in developing countries.

The students connected an ultrasound probe via a USB port to a netbook computer with a touch-sensitive screen and free software. Total cost: about $3,500. Of that, the probe accounts for $3,000.

“We’re relying on older technology,” said Alexis Hope, a master’s-degree student in human-centered design and engineering, as quoted in a university news release. “With time, our system will naturally get cheaper.”

The project started in a couple of undergraduate classes. Rob Nathan, MD, an acting assistant professor of radiology, was testing portable ultrasound machines in Uganda. “Portable ultrasound units currently available from manufacturers range from $15,000 to $60,000, far too expensive for ministries of health or donors to consider purchasing in large numbers,” he said. And the units were too complex for most midwives to use.

Dr. Nathan talked with colleague Beth Kolko, PhD, a professor of human-centered design and engineering. She got two undergraduate classes working on the project.

After considerable research, including a survey of Ugandan midwives, the students created a device using existing technology and focusing on detecting three things: multiple births, breech births, and blockage of the birth canal by the placenta. Midwives recognizing those high-risk cases could tell the expectant mother to go to a medical center rather than deliver their babies at home.

Said Dr. Kolko, the students’ faculty adviser:

I am a huge believer in the creativity of undergraduates. This grant really validates that belief.

The students were awarded the Gates Foundation grant on Tuesday. It was one of 65 grants (selected from more than 2,400 proposals) for projects “to pursue bold ideas for transforming health in developing countries,” according to a foundation news release. Successful projects could earn additional funding of up to $1 million.

The group also gets to present its research next month in London at the Symposium on Computing for Development, which explores computer applications for the developing world.

“This started as a class project,” Hope said. “To find out that we had gotten the money was very exciting. It really drove home that this project is going to push forward.”

Related seminar: Ob/Gyn and Abdominal Sonography

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