JHU designers aim to improve protective gear for those treating Ebola patients

Four teams receive Md. seed funding for concepts created at event co-hosted by Jhpiego, Center for Biomedical Innovation & Design

A weekend design challenge to develop new protective gear for health workers fighting Ebola drew students, faculty, and clinicians from across Johns Hopkins University and beyond, along with $25,000 in state seed grants to support further development of the best ideas.

Jhpiego, a nonprofit global health organization and Hopkins affiliate, and the JHU Center for Biomedical Innovation & Design (CBID) hosted the Emergency Ebola Design Challenge to harness the brain power and expertise of the Johns Hopkins community to develop ways to better protect health workers on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The 65 participants included employees from the Johns Hopkins medical institutions, schools of Public Health and Engineering, and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, as well as representatives from the Maryland Institute College of Art, a seamstress, an architect, and a robotics expert.

"It's abundantly clear to all that we are sending our most valued and talented medical workforce to fight Ebola with less than perfect gear," says Dr. Harshad Sanghvi, medical director for Jhpiego and vice president for innovations. "The nurses and doctors who contracted Ebola in West Africa are incredibly smart and well-trained. They depended on the best gear we have now to protect them. We must do better. "

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Added Youseph Yazdi, executive director of CBID: "We organized this event with the utmost sense of urgency, from concept to event in less than 10 days. The entire event is focused on developing creative new solutions that can be manufactured and in the field in a matter of months, not years."

The weekend challenge produced four promising concepts:

  • Cooling of personal protective equipment (PPE) to allow users to keep them on longer
  • More rapid and safe removal of personal protective equipment
  • Non-personal protective equipment patient isolation units
  • Extreme low-cost and easy to use protective gear for those caring for loved ones at home

The teams that developed those four ideas will use $25,000 in seed money provided by the BioMaryland Center to develop prototypes and mock-ups that will be reviewed by experts to further refine and improve a design, which will then be shared with potential funders. The goal is to develop these solutions to a point where a commercial partner can join with CBID and Jhpiego to manufacture, sell, and distribute the new gear. Involving such partners early on will be key to introducing a refined design into the field.

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Judith Britz, executive director of the BioMaryland Center and a judge at the event, applauded Jhpiego and CBID for pulling together the event in such a short period of time.

"That's what it will take to solve this problem, a diverse range of experts and viewpoints," she said. "The issues with PPE require a systems approach, with both technical and implementations expertise. ... The State of Maryland is pleased to partner with Johns Hopkins CBID, Jhpiego, Clinvue, and other participants to assist with rapid deployment of funding critical to taking the next steps beyond this design challenge."

The design challenge, held in the new BME design studio in Clark Hall on the Homewood campus, kicked off Friday afternoon with an intense, four-hour immersion into problems with existing PPE. Nurses from Johns Hopkins Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control demonstrated the process of donning and removing PPE safely during care of Ebola patients. Technical experts from Jhpiego provided background on the disease, and David Peters, chair of the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provided insights on the health care situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Participants also received an overview of existing PPEs used in a variety of conditions, and a review of the CBID design process by Soumyadipta Acharya, director of the CBID graduate program, and Paul Fearis, CEO of Clinvue and a lecturer at CBID. On Saturday, eight multidisciplinary teams were formed, with each focusing on specific areas of weakness of existing PPEs. Designers got to work with a wide range of supplies, including plenty of Tyvek, plastic sheeting, fabric, PPEs, cooling devices, and sewing machines. Many prototypes were built and refined, with immediate expert feedback. On Sunday, a panel of judges selected four promising concepts to carry forward.

"I was very impressed and excited to see such terrific ideas emerge from this event that we had never imagined and that will undoubtedly be very helpful and lead to better and safer PPE in the near future," said Lisa Maragakis, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and a judge.

"Seeing so many smart and creative people working so hard to develop new solutions was truly impressive," added Adam Kushner, a surgeon with experience in West Africa and an associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who participated in the event. "I am very confident that what was started this weekend will eventually be used to protect health care workers globally and save lives."