When the first Ebola patient was brought into the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, among the many challenges for the medical staff was being able to hear the beat of his heart and the function of his lungs.
The lowly stethoscope, whose design has not been changed in 150 years, couldn’t be used with the hazmat-style suits clinicians were required to wear to prevent them from coming into contact with the patient and risking getting the disease themselves.
By the time the second patient arrived, Kyle Hall, the hospital’s director of telehealth, had found a solution: a little-known, radically new kind of stethoscope—developed by an electrical engineer and released only in the spring—with ear-bud headphones doctors could wear on the outside of their body suits and wirelessly transmit heart and lung sounds to speakers or to physicians in another room.
It’s one of the ways engineering is being called upon to help meet the demands of treating Ebola and the world’s other aggressively contagious, often deadly illnesses.
The convergence of technology and medicine is not new, of course, but Ebola and viruses such as bird flu have accelerated and widened it into areas such as photonics and robotics that medical professionals had previously dismissed.
“Just the number of ideas I’ve seen in the last 45 days has been incredible,” Hall says. “That stethoscope is just a perfect example of how some things in healthcare have been the same for so long, and people haven’t thought outside the box. But now some technology that used to be kind of pie in the sky—some things that were conceptual and cool and fun but not really practical—a lot of those things have developed further.”
Take AERO, a robot developed at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Engineering faculty and students there are reprogramming it to decontaminate medical workers, and are working with counterparts at other universities to develop robots that could also handle waste removal, deliver food and water, bury the dead, and make up beds. The initiative is being pushed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“Engineers are problem-solvers. We just need to be near the problem to realize what can be done or not be done,” says Taskin Padir, a professor of robotics at WPI.
Padir and his students have studied video of Ebola treatment facilities operated by the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières. But he says they haven’t had to take all of the initiative. Medical doctors have begun to seek them out for help.
Until Ebola, Padir says, “They did not even realize we had those solutions. The key here is to bring these communities together to tackle the problems.”
Denver engineer Clive Smith, who spent eight years inventing that new stethoscope, says he has always been interested in medical applications of technology, inspired in part by relatives and friends who are physicians.
“I don’t know that there’s been a lack of communication between the two fields, but there’s no question that more is better,” says Smith, whose company is called ThinkLabs. “It’s a fantastic thing for engineers to be thinking about medical issues.”
Engineers are also working on ideas to speed up the diagnosis of Ebola. A collaboration between the engineering and medical schools at Boston University, for example, has resulted in a way to detect viral nanoparticles using LED light to measure their size and shape.
Across town at Northeastern University, Chemical Engineering Department chairman Tom Webster thinks he may have come up with a method to not only detect Ebola, but cure it by creating nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the virus and stop it from spreading. His lab is also working on nanoparticles that would serve as “decoys,” diverting the virus from attacking healthy cells.
What the Ebola epidemic has been doing “is stimulating people to pick up the phone just to say, ‘Let’s collaborate,’” Webster says. “It’s not new that clinicians and engineers have been collaborating, but every time something comes up that’s a crisis it stimulates even more people to collaborate.”
President of Society for Biomaterials, Webster says that once Ebola hit the headlines, he made sure the organization’s annual April conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, added a joint panel of engineers and medical professionals to talk about more ways they can do that.
Even that hazmat suit, called the PPE, or personal protection equipment, is being re-engineered in a series of hackathons connecting engineers, virologists, and medical workers prompted in part by a $5 million prize offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development for a new design.
Many of these things may take a while to get into the field. Robots are expensive and hard to transport, for example, and the BU diagnostic technique, now being tested in a lab at the University of Texas, will take an estimated five years to win approval.
But Hall, in Nebraska, says, “The saviors for health care will be engineers and all of us computer nerds who are going to be asking, ‘Why are we still doing it this way?’ Ebola has made that into a necessity.”
Photo courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute