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Fashioning a better Ebola suit with sewing machines and chocolate syrup

April 7, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
In the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, medical professionals taking care of patients have been among the most vulnerable to infection. The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks reports on a challenge to design a new Ebola suit that could help prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

GWEN IFILL: The most recent West African Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone sickened nearly 25,000 people and killed 10,000. Medical professionals are particularly vulnerable, as they work closely with infected and highly infectious patients.

But changes in the equipment they use to see the infected may make it easier to protect workers from the disease.

NewsHour special correspondent Mary Jo Brooks reports.

MARY JO BROOKS: Jill Andrews is normally busy this time of year.

JILL ANDREWS, Wedding Dress Designer: I thought that would be really cute.

MARY JO BROOKS: Sowing silk, lace and beads to create elaborate wedding gowns in her Baltimore studio.

JILL ANDREWS: You like that?

MARY JO BROOKS: But for the last five months, she’s been making an elaborate creation of a different sort, an Ebola protection suit made of bright yellow Tyvek fabric.

JILL ANDREWS: It was all-consuming. It was definitely — you’re thinking about it all night long. I’m playing like origami in my mind with Tyvek. You’re solving problems. It’s just about constantly solving problems and thinking about what needs to happen next.

MARY JO BROOKS: Andrews was among 60 people who took part in a grand challenge at Johns Hopkins university. Participants included doctors, engineers, public health experts and grad students. The goal?  To devise better ways of protecting health care workers from the deadly Ebola virus.

WENDY TAYLOR, U.S. Agency for International Development: What we do is, we define the problem and put that challenge out to the world and get some of the brightest minds to come forward and think about new ways to tackle these problems.

MARY JO BROOKS: USAID’s Wendy Taylor was responsible for creating the Grand Challenge competition.

MAN: I come from Malawi.

MAN: Raised in Baltimore.

MAN: Canada.

MARY JO BROOKS: For the past several years, she’s put out the call for people from all walks of life to help solve difficult global problems.

WOMAN: It’s human-powered.

MARY JO BROOKS: The first challenge, issued in 2011, resulted in new ways to reduce infant mortality.

WENDY TAYLOR: It’s really opened up our eyes to new ways to solve some of these tough development challenges that we haven’t really been able to crack.

MARY JO BROOKS: Last fall, USAID decided it need a new way to think about fighting Ebola.

WENDY TAYLOR: We started to see health care workers on the front lines face some real obstacles in providing care to their patients, and we thought it was an area that was ripe for innovation.

MARY JO BROOKS: Johns Hopkins responded by holding a weekend-long hackathon.

YOUSEPH YAZDI, Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design: Frankly, I was skeptical of what would come out of it. How can a group of novices address a problem and come up with solutions that are, you know, better than what the established players have come up with?  But we decided to just give it a try.

So what’s the plan?

MARY JO BROOKS: Youseph Yazdi, who spearheaded the effort, said they assembled a wide variety of materials to test their ideas.

YOUSEPH YAZDI: We raided fabric stores for everything you would need to test out your own ideas on the way to design a suit, cooling equipment, chocolate syrup, sewing machines.

MARY JO BROOKS: Why chocolate syrup?

YOUSEPH YAZDI: Because you want the see if you can protect yourself from contamination. So you rub the stuff all over yourself and then try to take off the suit and then see if any of it got on your skin. That’s — it’s a poor man’s simulation.

MARY JO BROOKS: The working group divided into eight teams, each trying to deal with a different problem with the existing protective suits. They’re hot. The goggles fog up. It takes too long to put on and take off, and there are too many places where infection can put in.

MATTHEW PETNEY, Johns Hopkins University Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design: Right. But it’s a big problem. There is skin showing. You can’t have any skin showing when you are treating Ebola.

MARY JO BROOKS: So that — the multiple pieces was one of the problems you had to solve?


WOMAN: Started to fog up.

MATTHEW PETNEY: And this is — it’s 60 degrees and not humid.

WOMAN: Right.

MATTHEW PETNEY: So you can see how much worse it would be.

MARY JO BROOKS: The prototype they built eliminates the need for separate goggles and creates an air channel in the hood to prevent fogging.

MATTHEW PETNEY: It’s very different from the neck up. Right?  You see all of the face. As he breathes, as he exhales, the fogging is limited to this area. And all of the exhale leaves here. So you’re constantly bringing in fresh air from above, from these inhale vents.

MARY JO BROOKS: The new suit is cooler, which means workers can wear it twice as long. Instead of 45 minutes, they can wear it for an hour-and-a-half.

MATTHEW PETNEY: We have moved the zipper to the back, because the front is generally the most contaminated. And, hopefully, by moving it from the front to the back, we can reduce the need for an apron which they wear, which is heavy and adds to the heat burden.

MARY JO BROOKS: The new suit is also easier to put on and take off with less chance of contamination. But not all of the ideas at the Grand Challenge were good ones.

JILL ANDREWS: One of the first things that I was really interested in was using magnets, but that got nixed.

YOUSEPH YAZDI: Plenty of bad ideas, plenty of really bone-headed, stupid ideas. But that’s what we love. Even if it’s a crazy idea, we encourage people to write it down. And then, as a leadership team, we filter through them to see which ones were feasible and fit within the constraints.

MARY JO BROOKS: Enough good ideas were generated to design a prototype suit that was then one of 15 projects chosen by USAID to be funded. That was out of 1,500 ideas submitted by individuals, labs and universities all around the world. The prototype is now being further refined and many of the changes will appear in suits that will begin manufacture this summer.

MAN: Replacing the idea of tubing.

MARY JO BROOKS: Professor Yazdi says he’s become a big believer in the idea of grand challenges.

YOUSEPH YAZDI: The more of this type of approach that the government takes of other organizations, like Gates Foundation, et cetera, I think it’s a wonderful model to rapidly solve problems. The old approach of having people spend years in the lab developing stuff is great to develop new science and technology.

But when it comes to solving problems, to bridging between science — between human knowledge and human need, this approach is really, I think, a very good one to take.

MARY JO BROOKS: In Baltimore, Maryland, I’m Mary Jo Brooks, reporting for the PBS NewsHour.