A handheld diagnostic medical lab created by two Stanford University graduate students took home the top prize in the first annual Presidents’ "Change the World" Competition from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last month–and its designers hope their NanoLab will revolutionize patient health care in poor countries worldwide.

With submissions from more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students around the globe, the competition called on students to develop unique solutions to real-world problems using engineering, science, computing, and leadership skills to benefit their community or humanity.

Stanford students Drew Hall, who is working on his doctorate in electrical engineering, and Richard Gaster, who is in the school’s M.D./Ph.D. program and working on his doctorate in bioengineering, designed the NanoLab to address the need for access to medical diagnostic laboratories and well-trained technicians in third-world countries.

IEEE President John Vig said he came up with the idea for the competition during a trip to India last year.

"I noticed how enthusiastic students were about doing humanitarian projects," he said, recalling one student who was excited about a computer program he designed that helped medical professionals diagnose children with autism. "His program is now being used throughout India. That gave me that idea that we ought to do something to try to encourage students to do humanitarian projects."

After spending time discussing solutions to different problems he and his peers saw, Hall said, the competition gave them an opportunity to turn their ideas into practice.

"Our regular research here at Stanford focuses on benchtop applications of technology. … One thing we thought would be kind of neat is if we could miniaturize everything and make a truly point-of-care and portable device," he said.

Gaster said much of the typical medical equipment is large. Although it is useful for research, the equipment is not necessarily applicable to the health care system.

"Especially with the state of the health care system as it is, we wanted to develop [something] more sustainable–cheaper, easier to use–so that it can actually be deployed and used either here in the U.S. or in the developing world," Gaster said.

Hall and Gaster said their ultimate goal is to get the NanoLab into the hands of individual patients, so they don’t necessarily have to go the emergency room or a physician to get a simple diagnosis. The platform will be reusable, with a number of different test sticks available that could be used to diagnose different illnesses. They said they are using part of their $10,000 prize to reinvest in and continue researching the NanoLab.

To use the NanoLab, the patient places a sample–such as saliva or blood–into the reaction well, then adds a few drops of a solution containing magnetic nanoparticles. After that, the patient adds a detection antibody. Fifteen minutes later, the NanoLab test module will indicate a protein’s concentration level by means of a colored light. If the light is off, the protein is undetectable. A green light indicates low protein concentration; an orange light indicates medium protein concentration; and a red light indicates high protein concentration.

Vig said he was impressed with the range of solutions that students entered into the competition.

"For example, there was a human-powered grain crusher. In the least developed countries–in the poorest countries in the world–it’s usually women who crush grains and make flour out of grains using very primitive tools. So these students decided to use a modified bicycle, … and just the energy from the person riding the bicycle was doing the grain crushing, rather than women sitting on the ground using the primitive tools," he said.

Entries for next year’s competition will be accepted beginning in September, though Vig acknowledged the judging process might have to be altered.

"It was difficult to complete the judging within the time frame that we allowed for ourselves, because we had judges all over the world and we want to make sure that everyone is judged fairly," he said.

"And it’s really difficult, because if you look at the topics … how do you compare a grain crusher to a handheld medical diagnostic laboratory? It’s very subjective, but that’s the way it is."

Second place, and $5,000, went to students from B.V. Bhoomaraddi College of Engineering and Technology in India. The students designed electronic aids for physically and mentally handicapped children. The human-powered grain crusher, designed by students from Rowan University in New Jersey, took third place and a $2,500 prize.

Links:

IEEE Presidents’ "Change the World" Competition 2009 winners

Presidents’ "Change the World" Competition 2010