Newswise – In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), we’re profiling a bioengineer who has inspired inclusion (this year’s theme) through her global contribution to women’s health.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at Rice University in Houston, has always been interested in solving women’s health challenges. It has been doing this on a global scale for two decades.

As co-director of the Rice360° Institute for Global Health TechnologiesRichards-Kortum focuses her efforts on preventable diseases such as cervical cancer and neonatal/infant mortality, which disproportionately affect women in low-income areas.

Her lab is developing imaging technologies that can quickly diagnose health conditions in resource-poor settings, such as a mobile imaging method that enables diagnosis and treatment Cervical cancer precursor in a single visit. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide, with an estimated 604,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths in 20201.

Richards-Kortum also co-leads a global initiative to eliminate preventable causes of newborn death in sub-Saharan Africa. While most women in Africa deliver their babies in health facilities, nearly one million newborns die each year in sub-Saharan Africa2. These hospitals lack life-saving technology, equipment and trained staff to care for premature babies and newborns in need, Richards-Kortum said.

To meet this need, she and bioengineering professor Maria Oden, Ph.D. at Rice University was a co-founder of the Essential solutions and technologies for newborns (NEST360°) Partnership. This international team of leading clinical, biomedical and public health experts from 22 institutions collaborates with local departments of health, finance and education to create high-performing neonatal intensive care units.

According to Richards-Kortum, interdisciplinary collaborative approaches are needed to solve major health challenges. “Introducing health technologies in resource-poor settings requires consideration of how we can strengthen the health system. “This is the kind of problem that I find fascinating and rewarding to work on,” she said.

Her work in low-income countries has been recognized by several organizations. The American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering selected her for its award Pierre Galletti Prize (2016)And Fortune magazine called her one of the The 50 Greatest Leaders in the World (2017).

A chance engagement

Richards-Kortum says she became involved in global health by accident. “We created a new biomedical engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000. I agreed to teach a biomedical engineering course for non-majors, and then added a global health component to make the material more interesting for students who simply wanted it to fulfill their general science requirements.”

As she learned more about health disparities and realized the lack of biomedical engineers in the field, she decided to change the focus of her lab’s work from technologies that solve health problems in resource-intensive settings to technologies that solve health challenges in resource-poor settings .

A visit to a pediatric AIDS clinic in Malawi in 2005 also got her thinking about the needs.

“I saw nurses in neonatal units working so hard to care for babies without having the necessary tools and technology. At the same time, these hospitals had tons of equipment that broke because it could not withstand the harsh environmental conditions and could not be repaired due to a lack of spare parts,” she said.

When she returned to Rice University, she was again eager to think about what more could be done to support education and strengthen research in biomedical engineering in resource-poor settings.

Richards-Kortum and Oden founded the Rice360° Institute for Global Health Technologies in 2007 to provide university students with educational opportunities to develop and implement new technologies to solve global health challenges. The Institute also supports women-led research and ensures that engineers and experts from resource-poor areas are included in the design and development process of new technologies.

Later in 2019, the NEST360° program was launched by the co-founders in collaboration with a large international team. The goal is to develop affordable, durable medical devices to care for small and sick newborns in African hospitals. These devices include an award-winning continuous positive airway pressure device for premature babies who have difficulty breathing.

Point-of-care technologies

Their latest collaborative project is building a new NIBIB-funded center to develop point-of-care technologies that can diagnose oral and cervical cancer early, when it is still treatable. The collaboration combines Rice’s technical expertise with the clinical/global health expertise of Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Care in Houston. The team also includes technical and clinical partners in Brazil and Mozambique who help identify urgent needs and develop and implement effective solutions.

Another goal of the new Center for Innovation and Translation of Point of Care Technologies for Equitable Cancer Care (CITEC) is to make cancer treatment affordable and accessible. Existing cancer screening tests are too complex and/or expensive to implement in primary care, particularly in medically underserved areas, Richards-Kortum explained.

CITEC is one of six centers included within it NIBIB-funded research network for point-of-care technologies which supports the development and acceleration of point-of-care technologies to address unmet medical needs in the United States and globally.

Richards-Kortum, a founding member of the NIBIB Advisory Board, said, “One of the things I love about NIBIB is that it supports technology development that makes an important difference in women’s health and health equity.”

Strength training

The NEST360º team has also worked with local engineering departments at universities in Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia to establish design studios (maker spaces) for project-based learning.

“Their engineering curriculum was solid but lacked project-based instruction. Now students and faculty are developing technologies to meet their local health needs,” Richards-Kortum said.

Examples of the technologies developed by the students include 80,000 face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic and a model of the female reproductive tract used in many countries, including the United States, for hands-on training of health workers in cervical cancer screening, early detection and Treatment at the point of care.

The NEST360° team also worked with its partners to develop a preparatory and continuing education training package to train physicians and biomedical technicians in the use, maintenance and repair of technologies to care for small and sick newborns.

“The training had a positive effect; The equipment we have supplied to these hospitals works 90% of the time. This helps eliminate the equipment graveyards our team saw on our first visit to Malawi,” said Richards-Kortum.

The future of women’s health

Despite global advances in women’s health, many challenges remain.

“There is an important justice aspect to these issues. We have already developed many tools, but they are often inaccessible to the people who would benefit from them. We need to develop better technologies that are both affordable and accessible,” said Richards-Kortum.

She is encouraged that more and more scientists, engineers and health experts are prioritizing women’s health.

“I see many young women who are very committed to ensuring equal access to health care, especially for women in underserved backgrounds. That gives me hope for the future.”

Study references:

  1. World Health Organization. (2023) Cervical Cancer Fact Sheet.
  2. World Health Organization. (2019) Every Newborn Progress Report.

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