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Medical Labs in a Bag?

After the devastating earthquake, the world’s eyes are on Haiti. Some say the tragic event reemphasizes the country’s need for stronger infrastructure — especially in the medical sector. A group from Rice University spent time in Haiti last year to test a compact medical tool they developed that can increase access to healthcare in Haiti and other developing countries. From the KUHF NewsLab, Wendy Siegle reports.


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“All of the materials are contained within this heavy duty hiking backpack. And inside is a microscope and a centrifuge….”

Jocelyn-Brown-Maria-Oden-with-Lab-in-a-BackpackRice University student Jocelyn Brown is showing me Lab-in-a-Backpack — an ultra-portable diagnostic laboratory she helped design and engineer with about twelve other students. At first glance it resembles a pack an adventurous hiker might take on a trekking expedition through the Himalayas. But after peeking inside, I discover there’s not much room for your socks. Instead, the pack is fitted with general purpose diagnostic tools.

“They diagnose what a physician might want to do in a general physical exam, along with, in specific countries, very specific tests that might work for diseases in those specific countries.”

That’s Maria Oden, an engineering professor at Rice. She’s also the director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen where most of the work on Lab-in-a-Backpack was cooked up. She says the thirty-two-pound pack is custom designed to be used in developing countries, like Haiti, where access to health care is often extremely limited.

“In order to get health care, either the people have to walk a very long way to a health clinic, or for the diagnostic Lab-in-a-Backpack the physician can go to a much more rural location and have the opportunity to do diagnostic tests that they normally would need a laboratory for.”

Last summer Brown, who’s a senior bioengineering major at Rice, field-tested the diagnostic Lab-in-a-Backpack in Haiti, a country current facing the tragic effects of one its worst-ever natural disasters.

“It was a very impactful experience; just witnessing the extreme lack of health care in Haiti was quite shocking.”

Brown says that the Lab-in-a-Backpack was—and still is—very useful in Haiti, because it can be used on diseases highly prevalent in the region.

“It can diagnose TB, malaria, several very common infectious diseases and provide basic treatment as well

In addition to the diagnostic Lab-in-a-Backpack, the students have created several other models for various uses. These include an OB/GYN pack, a dental pack and an eye care pack. Because the packs are most effective in providing basic care, Oden says they have many limitations when it comes to treating victims during a crisis situation. But new designs are in the works.

“There’s an opportunity to develop a backpack that would be specific for emergency care which might be even more appropriate for the disaster that’s happening right now.”

For now, the creators of the two-thousand dollar Lab-in-a-Backpack are fine-tuning the models and figuring out ways to get more packs sent to developing countries. Last month, twenty-four packs were sent to Ecuador. Over the next year, the packs will treat an estimated one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand Ecuadorians.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Wendy Siegle.