TOPICS > Science > Breakthroughs

Turning technology into easy medical lifesavers

November 18, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
Could a small device that produces a common disinfectant be a key to helping stop the spread of Ebola? Seattle-based nonprofit organization PATH develops innovative medical tools for low-income countries. The NewsHour’s Cat Wise reports on their recent innovations.

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to global health, much attention is now focused on Ebola. But more routine diseases take a toll on the world’s poorest people every day.

In Seattle, there’s a not-for-profit group trying to develop new tools and medicines to combat them.

The “NewsHour”‘s Cat Wise has the story, another report in our Breakthroughs series, which explores inventions and innovation both here and abroad.

GLENN AUSTIN, Group Leader, PATH: All we need is salt, water, and electricity to make this product work.

CAT WISE: With just those three ingredients, this small device produces concentrated chlorine, a powerful disinfectant. The man behind the product, Glenn Austin, says it took years to develop, but now there is a greater need for chlorine in parts of West Africa because of the Ebola outbreak, and this device may one day soon be helping to meet that demand.

GLENN AUSTIN: We are really thinking about how quickly we can move, because there’s a sense of urgency here. Chlorine is probably the most widely accepted universal disinfectant. It’s great. You can treat water with it and you can treat surfaces with it. And that is the preferred application for infection control and disease outbreak control.

CAT WISE: The Electrochlorinator is just one of the many products turned out by a global health nonprofit in Seattle, Washington, called PATH. For more than 30 years, the organization has been developing innovative medical devices, drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic equipment for use in low-income countries.

STEVE DAVIS, President and CEO, PATH: The fact that some people have access to lifesaving devices and other people don’t is simply wrong, it’s unfair, and it’s correctable.

CAT WISE: Steve Davis is president and CEO of PATH. He says one of the organization’s most successful products could come in handy in fighting the Ebola outbreak if a vaccine using a live virus, that has to be kept cold, is developed.

It’s a tiny heat-sensing sticker that tells health workers if a vaccine is no longer effective. It’s been used on five billion vaccine vials over the past two decades.

STEVE DAVIS: It turns out, in food, in frozen chicken, they have something on the package to show that if it had been thawed or unthawed. So we took that idea and now, by having a vaccine vial monitor, this little dot, we can actually tell whether that vaccine has got too hot, and therefore we wouldn’t use it if it’s changed colors.

And so that’s — that’s been really critical, saved literally millions of lives.

CAT WISE: PATH got its start in the 1970s bringing reproductive health technology to rural China. Today, the organization has 1,200 employees, a mix of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and health policy experts.

They work in more than 70 countries on issues such as clean water and sanitation, maternal and newborn health and neglected diseases. They often collaborate with public and private sector partners on the development, funding and distribution of products.

MIKE EISENSTEIN, Shop Manager, PATH: So, welcome, this is PATH’s product development shop.

CAT WISE: Mike Eisenstein manages the workshop where many of PATH’s health tools have emerged after months, sometimes years of research, development, testing, and old-fashioned tinkering.

MIKE EISENSTEIN: We’re looking for solutions that are sustainable, that are easy to use. They’re low-cost, very sturdy, very affordable. So we try and mimic all the settings where they will be used, how are the technologies we develop going to react to dust, to high humidity, to temperature, things like that.

CAT WISE: Eisenstein says the end users, often women and children, are what drive the inventions and designs. He showed us how that played out during the development of a new version of a decades-old female contraceptive.

MIKE EISENSTEIN: The challenge in this particular case was, really, diaphragms come in many different sizes, and in developing countries, it’s especially hard, you know, finding a doctor and then getting sized for a specific diaphragm.

What we did was, we designed a diaphragm with the idea of it fits most of the female population.

CAT WISE: Another tool developed in the workshop project is the Uniject, aimed at low-skilled health workers administering shots. Steve Brooke was one of the product developers.

STEVE BROOKE, Commercialization Advisor, PATH: It’s unique in that its completely self-contained. The dose of vaccine or the lifesaving medicine is already filled in this little bubble.

So the health care worker doesn’t have to measure the dose, take the time to find a different syringe. Once you have made the injection, it’s designed such that you cannot refill it, because reuse of syringes is a significant problem in developing countries.

CAT WISE: Down the hall from the workshop is PATH’s lab, where scientist Manjari Lal is developing methods to freeze-dry certain vaccines and drugs. The resulting tablets, which would eliminate the need for refrigeration and skilled health workers to administer shots or I.V.s, could be a game-changer, according to Lal.

MANJARI LAL, Technical Officer, PATH: We need to conduct some clinical studies to really demonstrate if this technology has value. But, yes, I mean, this is easy, packaging-wise, administration-wise, and storage, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa or Africa in general, where the temperatures run so high, if we have a product which is stable, heat-stable, I mean, it can indeed save a lot of lives.

CAT WISE: Saving through the use of innovation was a big theme at a recent PATH event honoring supporters and donors.

During his speech, CEO Steve Davis spoke about the need for better health systems in the world’s poorest countries.

STEVE DAVIS: Health inequity is generating all sorts of challenges to economic development and it’s generating a lot of political instability, and we have to address that. And certainly the situation in West Africa in Ebola is demonstrating that very, very much.

CAT WISE: But while Davis says the Ebola outbreak deserves attention and better resources from the international community, he worries that other longstanding global health problems will be overshadowed.

STEVE DAVIS: We have to keep in mind that far, far more children and women and families will suffer from and die from other diseases far more than Ebola. And that’s because malaria and diarrhea and pneumonia and other things are killing far more people in that region.

A lot of the work to support and help all those other conditions has come to almost a complete stop.

CAT WISE: Over the coming months, Davis says PATH will continue to stay engaged in the Ebola outbreak, while launching a major new effort to eliminate malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands each year.

CAT WISE for the “PBS NewsHour” in Seattle.

GWEN IFILL: Online, see PATH CEO Steve Davis’ idea for another medical breakthrough. That video is on the Rundown.