One Ugandan pediatrician's battle against an often fatal neonatal breathing problem shows how hack-a-thons organized by the MGH-based Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) are generating new solutions for pressing global health challenges.
Dr. Data Santorino
For Dr. Data Santorino, a pediatrician in Uganda, a 2012 Boston hack-a-thon organized by CAMTech brought new ideas and support to his efforts to develop a neonatal resuscitation device. Help Spark Global Health Innovation. Donate

Why have global health experts at Massachusetts General Hospital begun staging high-energy medical “hack-a-thons” in far-flung locations around the world? Consider the story of Ugandan pediatrician Data Santorino, MMed.

Each year, asphyxia and breathing trouble after birth claim the lives of more than 1.8 million newborns, many in low-income countries like Uganda. Dr. Santorino has witnessed such tragic deaths, which motivated him to attend a hack-a-thon in Boston in October 2012, and pitch a challenge.

These unique events are organized by the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech), which is based at Mass General‘s Center for Global Health. Designed to spark innovation, the hack-a-thons bring together engineers, clinicians and other innovators. Each team has a short period of time, often just 24 hours, to brainstorm their idea and then present a functional prototype.

In addition to the 2012 Boston event, which was done in partnership with MIT’s H@cking Medicine, CAMTech co-sponsored a hack-a-thon at the Vellore Institute of Technology University in southern India earlier this year. From Aug. 27 through 29, the consortium will co-sponsor a hack-a-thon at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in rural southwest Uganda.

Designed to spark innovation, the hack-a-thons bring together engineers, clinicians and other innovators. Each team has a short period of time to brainstorm their idea and then present a functional prototype. – Help Spark Global Health Innovation. Donate

The hack-a-thons reflect CAMTech’s broader effort to develop effective and affordable technologies that solve pressing health challenges in the world’s poorest regions. To ensure innovations are sustainable, the organization involves creative thinkers with an array of cultural, economic and professional perspectives.

“We are providing a catalytic venue to bring together the brightest minds in public health, engineering and business,” explains Elizabeth Bailey, CAMTech’s director. “The global health impact of these collaborations could be enormous.”

Hack-a-thon as the Fast Track to a Prototype

Dr. Santorino is involved in rolling out Helping Babies Breathe, a program to teach neonatal resuscitation techniques in Uganda. Soon after starting the process in 2010, he realized that while healthcare workers had little trouble learning resuscitation skills, maintaining them proved to be difficult. That, he believed, would inevitably lead to the loss of young lives.

At the Boston hack-a-thon, during the period when potential projects compete for attention, Dr. Santorino pitched his problem to the room. His hope was to create a device that could process key data and determine whether newborn resuscitation was effective while it was in progress. CAMTech Medical Director Kristian Olson, MD, MPH, also a master trainer in Helping Babies Breathe, helped by lending a resuscitator to help him make the pitch.

A hack-a-thons such at the Vellore Institute of Technology University in India
At hack-a-thons such as this one at the Vellore Institute of Technology University in India, innovators have the opportunity to pitch their ideas for new medical devices to potential collaborators. Help Spark Global Health Innovation. Donate

In the subsequent “mixing period,” when attendees choose which project to work on, Dr. Santorino was approached by Kevin Cedrone, then an MIT doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, and consultant Craig Mielcarz, an electrical engineer.

The newly formed team quickly got to work. Using some tubes and electronic components, the collaborators created a first prototype of the Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR) in less than 24 hours. This small, inexpensive device can be attached to emergency ventilation equipment to monitor and record the performance of healthcare workers conducting infant resuscitation. It also gives instant feedback to improve resuscitation technique in real time and shorten training.

The Seeds of Global Health Progress

Dr. Santorino and his teammates took home first prize at the hack-a-thon. The AIR team used the $1,000 award to keep their creation moving forward. The funds covered application fees for a provisional patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“I nursed the idea of developing a device like the AIR for close to two years with little success,” Dr. Data Santorino says. “That hack-a-thon brought the people and ideas together to make it all happen.” – Help Spark Global Health Innovation. Donate

And that was just the start. The AIR team subsequently was awarded $10,000 at the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge in May and a $250,000 seed grant at USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge in July. “This money will support product development and clinical trials,” Dr. Santorino says. “It’s quite a boost for us.”

The AIR team has since unveiled an improved second prototype and is now working on a third. In September, the AIR will be put to the test in a training session in Uganda. There, health professionals will administer resuscitation on mannequins while using ventilation equipment with the AIR attached.

After the session in Uganda, more revisions and trials surely await. While Dr. Santorino can’t project exactly when the AIR might finally be used to save young lives in a clinical setting, he does know that the CAMTech hack-a-thon was a crucial milestone in its development.

“I nursed the idea of developing a device like the AIR for close to two years with little success,” he says. “That hack-a-thon brought the people and ideas together to make it all happen.”

To learn about the inaugural Uganda hack-a-thon on Aug. 27 through 29 and how you can support the work of the Mass General‘s Center for Global Health, please contact us. Learn more about the Mass General Center for Global Health at www.massgeneralcenterforglobalhealth.org.