Harvard students work to better lives of young cancer patients in poor countries
Three inventors plan to fly to Malaysia on Saturday to promote a medical device that young cancer patients would wear. A Japanese drug maker has already awarded them and two colleagues $25,000 for their efforts. Now the team is competing to win another $25,000 from judges who will scrutinize the concept, which the inventors hope to market one day.
Not bad for a bunch of Harvard undergrads.
The five bioengineering and electrical engineering students make up one of three finalists for the 2018 Astellas Oncology C3 Prize, an annual global challenge to generate ideas to improve the lives of cancer patients.
This year’s contest asked participants to create something to help people with cancer in poor and middle-income countries, where survival rates are much lower than in affluent countries.
The Harvard team designed a thermometer that pediatric cancer outpatients would wear on their wrists like a Fitbit. It would precisely track body temperature 24 hours a day. If a child’s temperature spikes — which can happen if a patient undergoing chemotherapy gets an infection as a result of a weakened immune system — the device would flash small LED lights and sound an alarm.
A wearable thermometer might not sound like a radical idea, but the Harvard inventors said ordinary thermometers aren’t always available or routinely used in poor countries.
“We heard from a lot of clinicians that thermometers aren’t always common, and even the idea of checking someone’s temperature” isn’t de rigueur, said Emily Dahl, a 20-year-old senior.
Detecting a fever as soon as it happens is critical for cancer patients who might be prescribed antibiotics to treat opportunistic infections and prevent serious complications.
“Those infections, unfortunately, can be fatal if there are delays getting them to treatment,” Dahl said.
One of the other Harvard inventors, Do Hyun Kim, a 21-year-old senior, said doctors and nurses told them that a simple, reliable device could reduce the mortality rate in such patients.
A cancer diagnosis in a child is always terrifying, of course, but the odds of surviving are much worse in poorer countries, experts say.
Eighty percent of the 200,000 children diagnosed with cancer every year worldwide live in poor countries, according to the Global Health Initiative at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. On average, only one in five of them survives.
In contrast, four in five children diagnosed with cancer in wealthy countries survive, according to the health initiative. The Harvard students hope their brainchild would change that.
Joining Kim and Dahl on the trip to Kuala Lumpur is a third member of the team, Olga Romanova, a 21-year-old senior, who will describe the potential device to judges at the 2018 World Cancer Congress. The other members of the Harvard team are Calvin Marambo and Anna Raheem.
The two other finalists are Ebele Mbanugo, of Lagos, Nigeria, founder of the nonprofit Run for a Cure Africa, and Dr. Richard Levenson, of Sacramento, Calif., UC Davis Medical Center. Mbanugo wants to produce a digital audio series to dispel myths about breast cancer. Levenson is a pathologist working to develop a microscope that can examine tissue without glass slides. Like the Harvard team, each has already won $25,000.