Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds oxygen supply machine development

June 15 / 160

The University of Melbourne team developing the LPOS machines, from left to right, Dr David Peake and Dr Bryn Sobott from the Physics Department, A/Prof Jim Black from Medicine and A/Prof Roger Rassool, project leader.
The University of Melbourne team developing the LPOS machines, from left to right, Dr David Peake and Dr Bryn Sobott from the Physics Department, A/Prof Jim Black from Medicine and A/Prof Roger Rassool, project leader.

A team of University of Melbourne physicists and doctors developing life-saving oxygen supply machines that continue working even during power cuts has received an initial $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Funded by the Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations Grants program to prototype new technology, the team may also receive a further $1 million once the technology is proven.

Targeted specifically at treating young children with pneumonia in developing countries, the machine, known as LPOS, stores oxygen at low-pressure to ensure steady supply when the electricity fails. It has potential to reduce child pneumonia mortality rates in developing country health facilities by 30 per cent. 

Pneumonia is the number one killer of children under five-years-old worldwide, causing 1.5 million child deaths a year. One child dies from the disease every 30 seconds. Even if a child suffering from severe pneumonia is on antibiotics, without a steady flow of purified oxygen, their lungs struggle to cope and the condition often becomes fatal.

Faculty of Science physicist Roger Rassool, who is leading the project, said the biggest problem with treating young pneumonia patients in developing countries is when the electricity fails, as it often does in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, and the flow of oxygen stops.

“We have developed a method of storing oxygen safely at a low pressure, which has the ability to maintain a flow of oxygen to a patient during a power outage,” Associate Professor Rassool said.

“We thought, why don’t we capture the spare oxygen that’s being made when the power is on and keep it in a low pressure storage system to tap into when the power goes off? Now we have funding to build it and test how to store enough oxygen to get through a day without electricity.”

The store would be enough to keep a child alive in excess of eight hours, even during a complete blackout, he added.

“We have a simple, yet profound key performance indicator, and that is, how many lives we save.”

Associate Professor Jim Black from the Nossal Institute, who is also working on the project, worked in remote health clinics in Mozambique for a decade and knows first-hand the devastation pneumonia has had in these communities.

“With this technology, we can make big inroads against the mortality rate. That’s why we’re so dedicated to making this work. We can start talking in terms of tens of thousands of deaths that can be prevented.”

This August, the team will travel to Uganda to test the technology in medical clinics in East Africa while recording data, understanding the local issues with power supply and establishing relationships on the ground.

The ultimate aim is to establish a startup in Melbourne with strategic partnerships between the University, industry and community, to form the manufacturing capability here in Australia.  

For more information on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Round 14 Grand Challenges Explorations Phase I grants see: http://grandchallenges.org/

Story by Jane Gardner

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