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Northwestern Helps Bring First Biomedical Engineering Programs to Nigerian Universities

Northwestern to set up new programs to develop HIV/AIDS testing and treatment products

Northwestern University researchers are flipping the model of transporting Western health care technology -- often impractical and expensive -- to the developing world. Instead, they will begin working with universities in Nigeria to develop the country’s first biomedical engineering departments, with a particular emphasis on developing products related to HIV/AIDS testing and treatment.

Northwestern will begin training programs to help Nigerian universities set up biomedical engineering curriculums, invent medical devices for the country’s health care needs and manufacture and market those devices, ultimately growing their medical projects industry. The goal is to improve international health care and save lives.

Those African inventions even could flow to the West and ultimately benefit health care in the U.S. because they will be simpler and less costly.

Matthew Glucksberg“We’re going to teach the medical schools to train biomedical engineers and medical doctors to develop HIV-related testing tools like a rapid-HIV infant test rather than buy expensive equipment from manufacturers here and in Europe,” said Robert Murphy, M.D., director of the Center for Global Health and the John P. Phair Professor of Infectious Diseases at Feinberg. He also is a physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Murphy is directing the program along with Matthew Glucksberg, the director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health Technologies at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Kara Palamountain, executive director of Northwestern’s Global Health Initiative at Kellogg School of Management. 

Western HIV diagnostic technologies are expensive and done in centralized labs with highly automated machines. But Africa doesn’t have the laboratory or transportation infrastructure of the West, so results may get lost or patients may not return to the clinic, Murphy noted. 

“You want to diagnose them in the clinic so you can begin treatment immediately,” said Glucksberg, a professor of biomedical engineering at McCormick.

The Northwestern team will be working to develop the new curriculum with the University of Ibadan and Lagos University in Nigeria with whom Northwestern already has faculty and student exchange programs. 

“The medical professionals use technology that has been developed for the West in situations where neither the disease nor the environment may be the same,” Glucksberg said. “Nigeria has good engineers and clinicians. They need to get together and develop biomedical engineering programs so they can address their own needs in Nigeria.”

In addition to HIV/AIDS, Africa has a high mortality rate for tuberculosis and other treatable infectious diseases, Murphy said. “It’s particularly tough on kids and maternal mortality,” he said.

The project, funded by the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, builds on ongoing biomedical projects between Northwestern and African universities. The Fogarty project is a collaboration between Feinberg, McCormick and Kellogg and is the first NIH grant to span all three schools.   

As an example of the kind of devices that need to be developed, Murphy pointed to an infant warmer to keep a baby warm during surgery. In the U.S., an infant warmer costs up to $12,000 and uses $300 worth of disposable products for each surgery. That’s not feasible in Africa where physicians try to compensate, sometimes by keeping operating room temperatures uncomfortably high or by using an electric heating pad that risks burning the child. Instead, Northwestern and the University of Ibadan developed a device that costs less than $50 to build and accomplishes the same thing. 

Another project in the works is a tablet-based implementation of a set of World Health Organization protocols known as Integrated Management of Childhood Illness. These protocols have been shown to improve diagnoses and child health where implemented. The tablet version runs on the Android platform and will be used initially to train nurses and other health care workers in the use of these protocols.

Palamountain will facilitate communication between Nigerian engineers, scientists and clinicians and work with them on their inventions’ approval, manufacturing, distribution and financing.

“We have a model at Northwestern that includes the business discipline of market research as well as commercialization of medical technology,” said Palamountain, research assistant professor at Kellogg. “We want to expand this model to Nigeria.”

Nigerian faculty members will visit Northwestern to participate in classes taught by Glucksberg. The faculty members also will join Northwestern teams in the field in other African countries where they are doing product development, market research and commercialization of technologies.