Last week, four students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and three from the Integrated Product Design Program (IPD) returned from Ghana prepared to design a point-of-care device that will address the growing problem of Type 2 diabetes in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Jointly taught by Beth Winkelstein, a professor of bioengineering and associate dean of undergraduate education at Penn Engineering, and Sarah Rottenberg, a lecturer at PennDesign and director of the IPD, the Appropriate Point of Care Diagnostics program (APOC) is a new collaboration between SEAS and two African health research centers: the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR) in Ghana and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
Winkelstein says the program renews Penn President Amy Gutmann's Penn Compact 2020 with APOC’s promise of global impact, its focus on innovative product design, and the financial aid available to student participants.
When Winkelstein, Rottenberg, and Megan Doherty, director for international and service learning programs at SEAS, started seeking a topic that would maximize the program’s impact, they turned to their African partners, who suggested Type 2 diabetes, a disease that is gravely understudied in Sub-Saharan Africa, with about 80 percent of the affected population believed to be undiagnosed.
APOC’s seven students began the two-class sequence last spring with a visit from KCCR scientific director Ellis Owusu-Dabo and KEMRI senior researcher Yaw Afrane, who provided students with the historical and cultural context for the troubling rise of Type 2 diabetes, as well as a broader sense of the health care landscape in Ghana.
After a full semester of research and study, the students had several proposals for point-of-care devices. Given the highly interdisciplinary nature of bioengineering, Winkelstein says such designs “require the integration of fluid mechanics, chemistry, physics, electronic sensors, controllers, and software for control and readout.”
Before their trip, students paid special attention to the study of microfluidics, an area of particularly fast-paced innovation that Winklestein says “opens up the door for affordable fabrication and adaptation for a broad array of human health issues.”
While in Ghana, the students’ KCCR partners provided them with a full slate of activities, including visits to hospitals and health clinics, as well as meetings with physicians, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, patients, herbalists, and a traditional medicine practitioner.
“We really wanted to understand the medical culture there,” Rottenberg says, “how people currently think about diabetes, how it’s being treated, and then identify some opportunities for improvement.”
Over the course of their three-week trip, the students came up with ideas for two prototype devices that they could pursue next semester with the goal of presenting it to their partners at the end of the calendar year.
Winkelstein, Doherty, and Rottenberg agree that the Penn Engineering trip had a significant impact on all the students, conveyed potently in the words of one who remarked: “I think of the whole world differently now.”
Originally published on June 26, 2014