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Earth Hardware Hacking Medicine Build

Scientists Build Neonatal Incubator From Car Parts 211

Posted by kdawson
from the band-aid-and-a-dead-bee dept.
Peace Corps Online writes "The NYTimes ran a story this week about a group of scientists who have built a neonatal incubator out of automobile parts, including a pair of headlights as a heat source, a car door alarm to signal emergencies, and an auto air filter and fan to provide climate control. The creators of the car-parts incubator say that an incubator found in any neonatal intensive care unit in the US could cost around $40,000, but the incubator they have developed can be built for less than $1,000. One expert says as many as 1.8 million infants might be spared every year if they could spend just a week in the units, which help babies who are born early or at low birth weights regulate their body temperature until their organs fully develop. Experts say in developing countries where infant mortality is most common, high-tech machines donated by richer nations often conk out when the electricity fizzles or is restricted to conserve power. 'The future medical technologists in the developing world,' says Robert Malkin, director of Engineering World Health, 'are the current car mechanics, HVAC repairmen, bicycle shop repairmen. There is no other good source of technology-savvy individuals to take up the future of medical device repair and maintenance.'"
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Scientists Build Neonatal Incubator From Car Parts

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  • This is great! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by thesaurus (1220706) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:04AM (#26197641)
    A use for all those cars we Americans won't buy now! We can bail out Detroit and save babies at the same time.
    • Hell, the American Big Three are desperately looking for some good PR, after getting spanked out of Washington. A reformed Rick Wagoner could say, "I've given up taking joy rides in the corporate jet, and am now saving babies."

      TFA mentions that they rummage around in junk yards for parts: Detroit probably has butt-loads of new parts that they will never need. The UAW will clean up their image by using volunteers to do the assembly for free.

      As soon as they do this, the German auto companies will respo

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:04AM (#26197643)

    It's a reminder of what can be done with old-fashioned, low-tech stuff, and that breakthroughs can remain a down-and-dirty job and you don't need millions of dollars in funding to get one.

    • by saider (177166)

      Who paid for the engineers' and all the testing and certifications for that device?

      That is what eats up the cost with all these medical devices, not the cost of parts.

    • by scorp1us (235526)

      Um, no. Not in the US. If a unit had a failure leading to death, the family would sue, the hospital, and the equipment manufacturer for multiple millions each.

      See, we've moved past just being happy to be alive. We now need to have someone else be responsible for providing for our existence too. That's how good it is here in America!

  • Cool (Score:5, Informative)

    by skiphoppotamus (1159029) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:06AM (#26197657) Journal
    I work at Children's Mercy Hospital and Clinics in the ICN and I can tell you from first hand every day experience that creating affordable incubators that can be brought into lesser hospitals would dramatically help what is an increasingly high premature birth rate here in the Midwest.
    • Re:Cool (Score:4, Insightful)

      by darkmeridian (119044) <william.chuang@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:42AM (#26197805) Homepage

      I get the feeling that better prenatal care of the mother would prevent a lot of those premature births. A lot more than better incubators, I'm sure.

      • by EXTomar (78739)

        Parent is right but its a little to late to discuss that when the child is already there. And not to mention the cost of health service and insurance "quirks" may make it unaffordable to some anyway.

        Why not get the best of all worlds? It is possible to strive for better, cheaper prenatal care and better, cheaper incubators.

      • by LanMan04 (790429)

        I get the feeling that better prenatal care of the mother would prevent a lot of those premature births. A lot more than better incubators, I'm sure.

        Then again, maybe those premie babies wouldn't have made it at all if it weren't for good prenatal care. Kind of like the statistic that the US ranks like 37th in the world in terms of infant mortality. It's probably not because of poor care, but because of exceptional care. All those infants that died after birth probably would have been stillborn/killed the mother by dying in the womb. The babies would be just as dead, but not classified as "infant mortality".

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by mad flyer (589291)

      And you want the fun part of that... here in Japan. The Red Cross refuse donation other than... MONEY...
      I'm in an old maternity clinic where they stopped deliveries as the owner is getting too old for this kind of 24h a day duty cr@p and so we have inpatient beds, newborn beds (all heavy duty japanese made, stuff that can survive a nuke). Brand new incubator and delivery table. ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING WAS REFUSED.
      Seems that the japanese Red Cross suffer the common local problem known formerly only by politici

      • The Japanese have this weird hangup about 2nd hand stuff. Boggles my mind, but I love it when I'm in Japan. Few want the stuff, and the original owners were anal-retentive Japanese so are generally practically new after a few years use! End up with near mint condition stuff for less than what would show heavy use stateside.
  • Sounds to me like this is a statement more of price gouging on medical equipment more than the ingenuity of the scientists (not to belittle their effort).
    • by jcr (53032)

      price gouging on medical equipment

      Nope. I've worked in medical imaging from time to time in my career, and you'd be shocked to learn what kind of costs are imposed by government regulations. An 8-bit, 1024x1024 monochrome CRT can cost $15K easily, and it's not because the vendor wants it to cost that much.

      -jcr

      • by Davemania (580154) on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:00AM (#26197867) Journal
        Thats because the stringent testing that is required for medical devices. If we're talking about devices that doesn't play any pivotal role in medical treatment, it often doesn't require the verification and stringent testing and would cost significantly less(alot of the cost for devices are on clinical tests). Imagine if you use a off the shelf monitor for a multi-million dollar imaging machine, and it failed to display a small cancerous anomaly correctly ...
        This article doesn't really say anything about the current state of medical devices, it just simply costs alot to build and verify they work in an acceptable manner for medical purposes. I don't think the machines talked about in these article will ever be adopted in the west. I doubt the reliability of these components will be up to scratch compare to the regular prenatal care machines BUT for third world countries where the medicial facilities are so poor, its probably worthy to think about adopting these machines as a temporary stop gap and thats probably the point of this exercise.
        • by jcr (53032) <jcr@NoSPaM.mac.com> on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:11AM (#26197901) Journal

          Thats because the stringent testing that is required for medical devices.

          That's what the FDA would like you to believe, but in my experience, that's bullshit. The costs go into the insane amount of red tape and hoop-jumping that it takes for FDA to grudgingly acknowledge that you've done your homework and the product performs as advertised.

          -jcr

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Davemania (580154)
            I've had experience with regulations and biomed industries, not just the FDA, but european etc etc. Theres a reason why companies have to do all these regulation and testing for medical devices, the more intrusive or critical the device it is, the more testing and verification is needed. (Not that it ever catches every single bug or design flaw) but a safety mechanism is needed (for recall, tracking manufacturing, design etc etc) and to show that the these company have at least taken common problems into co
            • by jcr (53032)

              This isn't some FDA or CE conspiracy to jack up the price (at least most of it).

              Their purpose isn't to drive the costs up, that's just a side effect of giving them far more power than they should ever have had.

              -jcr

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by saider (177166)

                Most FDA regulations are in place because someone died from a malfunction. The FDA is a very reactionary organization. They do not think ahead, they are trying to prevent a repeat of past problems. The problem is, there have been many problems that we do not want to repeat.

            • The government is only good at making repetitive processes function. Unfortunately, they gild the lily of these repetitive processes over time, increasing the cost and time required.

              Some things that have been tried are creating a new agency and abolishing the old one, to streamline the process. This has a limited effect as those hired by the new agency are often the same faces as at the old. The only way to reduce cost and streamline the process would be to privatize it, but the inevitable corruption in

  • -1 misses the point? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmail. c o m> on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:12AM (#26197693) Homepage

    Um, the problem isn't a lack of repairmen Mr Malkin - it's a lack of electricity. A problem which this incubator doesn't fix. (No, the motorcycle battery isn't a fix. It's a backup. With no electricity, this incubator dies just as dead as a high tech one.)

    • by nonsequitor (893813) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:30AM (#26197753)

      I think you missed the point. The point is that this can be repaired with car parts by a mechanic and is more robust than the higher tech units. Having cheaper more robust technology is important for developing nations since it allows first world countries to help bootstrap improvements to their quality of life. While I can't speak to how many hospitals are lacking electricity, I would say this is going to enrich the lives of many people around the world and is definitely a good thing.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      Um, the problem isn't a lack of repairmen Mr Malkin - it's a lack of electricity. A problem which this incubator doesn't fix. (No, the motorcycle battery isn't a fix. It's a backup. With no electricity, this incubator dies just as dead as a high tech one.)

      Not a problem. A small motorcycle internal combustion engine could run continuously to provide electricity via a generator. Now all that's required are babies that breathe carbon monoxide.

      • Any baby can do that for at least a few minutes.
      • by mpe (36238)
        Not a problem. A small motorcycle internal combustion engine could run continuously to provide electricity via a generator. Now all that's required are babies that breathe carbon monoxide.

        Or someone comes up with a low tech method to make either a power cable or an exhaust pipe :)
  • by budword (680846) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:20AM (#26197719)

    A slashdot story that cries out for a car analogy.

  • Mission Criticality (Score:3, Interesting)

    by _Hellfire_ (170113) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:22AM (#26197723) Homepage

    My daughter was born 7 weeks premature and spent 2 weeks in an incubator. As a side effect of spending so much time with her in the neonatal unit, I got to know what every switch and readout on her machine did. It was a very impressive piece of equipment designed to do one thing very well - keep a helpless human alive.

    I would hazard a guess as to say that the insides of the machine are built with all sorts of hardware redundancy checks inside to ensure that its critical mission is carried out no matter what (I'm pretty sure it even had a UPS); which probably contributes somewhat to the high cost. That and the liability aspect inherent with any machine that keeps humans alive (from auto-respirators to space-suits).

    I am fortunate enough to live in a country with a high standard of health care, and my daughter's stay in her expensive machine saved her life; however if a lower cost alternative that does the core functions of the expensive machines can be built for countries that are not as well off as we are, I am all for that. Expensive machines are also expensive to maintain, and if the TCO can be lowered to the point that poorer countries can operate them comfortably, that's got to be a benefit. It just goes to show that ingenuity knows no bounds.

  • by Thanshin (1188877) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:24AM (#26197731)

    This gives me hope.

    Some day, someone will find a way of creating a computer from wood and stone. And then I won't feel inferior to car mechanics because of my uselesness in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

    (Yes, I know a car is more useful than a computer in the first months, but years of gaming must have prepared me for fending the radioactive zombies till a new order is established.)

    • by shawb (16347)
      Back in my day, we didn't need no fancy wood to build our computers. [wikipedia.org] Stone was all we needed. And we liked it.
  • by jcr (53032) <jcr@NoSPaM.mac.com> on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:35AM (#26197771) Journal

    ... and probably forty grand for costs of FDA compliance.

    -jcr

    • Why would you seek FDA compliance for a device like this? It's like seeking approval for a steak knife as an emergency tracheotomy tool.
      • by jcr (53032)

        Why would you seek FDA compliance for a device like this?

        I wouldn't, but it's the FDA that decides what they'll regulate.

        -jcr

    • by sorak (246725)

      This is for use in third world countries where the FDA has no authority.

  • by hedgemage (934558) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:36AM (#26197785)
    After being laid off from the high-tech industry a few years back, I ended up working as a maintenance man at a large retirement facility. Our facility includes independent living, assisted living, and full-time managed care.
    Since we're a not-for profit facility, there's a lot of incentive to do things in a cost effective manner, but at the same time, safety and well being of our residents is paramount. I've found myself having to repair all manner of medical equipment with little or no help from the manufacturer or seller. Things as simple as wheelchairs and walkers, to moderately complex like lift chairs and adjustable beds, to stuff like oxygen generators and emergency nurse-call equipment.
    My employer would never be able to afford vendor reps to fix all this stuff, and so its left to myself and the rest of our small department. I'm the only one with a college education, and the only one from a high-tech background. The other guys have backgrounds in things like HVAC and carpentry. Simply put, the cost of health care equipment has far outstripped the ability for many facilities to support it and still provide affordable care. I was used to working with engineers, programmers, and big budgets until recently. The future of health care is not more tech, but taking the tech we have and making it cheaper and easier to maintain.
    • by Simonetta (207550) on Monday December 22, 2008 @12:40PM (#26201813)

      I used to be an electronic technician in the medical device field (until I got fired for cutting through impenetrable FDA red tape regulations too many times).

          I have noticed the unbelievable cost difference between medical equipment and consumer electronics that use the same technology. This is due I believe to the cost-plus guaranteed-giant-profit mentality of the entire medical industry in the USA. Every part of the industry; the lawyers, the doctors, the administrators, the drug dealers, the insurance companies, the equipment makers, the FDA regulators, everyone, is working to drive the costs up without any consideration whatsoever for the long term consequences. And these consequences are the premature painful deaths of millions of people who are denied health care in the USA, both now to a limited extent and in the future to a much greater extent.

          I'm toying with the idea of an underground health movement that uses 'open-source' medical equipment that is cheap and safe, but illegal because it can't get FDA approval. Nothing in the USA gets FDA approval if it is created outside of the insaisibly greedy medical industry. I've come to the conclusion that whenever people in the USA talk about the need for 'extensive testing and ultimate safety' for medical equipment, they are expressing a code word for getting paid off big time.

    • by Thelasko (1196535)

      My employer would never be able to afford vendor reps to fix all this stuff, and so its left to myself and the rest of our small department. I'm the only one with a college education, and the only one from a high-tech background.

      When someone dies or becomes injured the plaintiff's attorney will have an easy open and shut case against your employer for hiring unqualified technicians. Health care is affordable, liability insurance isn't.

  • Economy of scale (Score:3, Insightful)

    by inalienable (670771) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:51AM (#26197835)

    I didn't RTFA, but what a lot of commenters seem to be missing is the concept of economy of scale. The great idea here seems to be that using "off the shelf", mass-produced car parts to create an incubator with equal functionality to that of a standard incubator saves a great deal of money. Plus, the car parts have been better tested and are apparently more reliable. So this is kind of like building a software system by combining lots of preexisting, well-tested components rather than custom designing everything in-house.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sorak (246725)

      It is also about going into a third world junkyard and getting a local mechanic to fix the thing when it's broken. The article mentions how that many of the expensive neonatal incubators end up not being used because they either don't know how to operate it, or can't fix it five years later, when it breaks down.

      I am curious how, in terms of effectiveness and quality this stacks up to what we have in America, but, in some places, they have no other options.

      • by mpe (36238)
        It is also about going into a third world junkyard and getting a local mechanic to fix the thing when it's broken

        Though it could well be that the "mechanic" and the "junkyard owner" are the same people.

        The article mentions how that many of the expensive neonatal incubators end up not being used because they either don't know how to operate it, or can't fix it five years later, when it breaks down.

        Even if they did know how to fix it they probably can't get the parts. If these "donations" are supplied w
  • by GrpA (691294) on Monday December 22, 2008 @03:52AM (#26197839)

    I can't see it happening.

    The medical industry is all about litigation. If you invent something that saves peoples lives, then of the 100 people it saves, there might be someone who dies anyway, because of device failure and you can be sure that some lawyer's already prefilled out the lawsuit against you and is just waiting for an opportunity.

    A friend of mine invented a very simply device that measured skin resistance and could be placed over someone's torso (like a blanket) to look for internal bleeding. This isn't just some inventor guy, he works as an engineer in one of Australia's top universities.

    As soon as the university lawyers found out it had a medical application, they killed the project.

    There's no doubt it would have saved lives, but the sad truth is that the university involved would actually rather see those people die than risk the litigation of being sued if anyone tried to prove that someone actually died of the device if it was somehow misused by a paramedic at the scene of an accident.

    And I don't think it's likely to change. There's too much money invested in keeping medicine esoteric and away from everyone else too allow too many companies in to dilute the spend of sick people.

    Maybe it's a rant, but it's a sad truth that I beleive. Doctors are pretty much the only people who seem to get away with doing this kind of research but even then I've read of far too many doctors who are persecuted because they came up with some kind of new treatment/device.

    I'm guessing that car-parts-incubators is just radical enough to get anyone who tries to market it into trouble. Even if it saved a million livess, it would bring a thousand lawsuits and while I'm sure if some parents saw an infant die because of a lack of incubators, they would say these are needed, but if an infant dies while it's in an incubator, they'll look for someone to blame. Not that commercial units are any more reliable. But what judge is going to beleive that a $1000 unit was just as good as a $40,000 unit?

    Please excuse my cynicism. It's just that I've observed this more than a few times.

    GrpA.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:01AM (#26197873)
      Bonehead, this is intended for use in the developing world, not lawyer-land.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Well, bonehead, why the hell does everything medical-oriented in lawyer-land cost so damned much? The OP was right! Medical suppliers have a vested interest in making sure that competition does not exist! Whether their involvement is in actually filing lawsuits or simply providing "expert witness" testimony to help lawyers get a settlement, they are raising the bar for anyone else to enter a market that they control with overpriced, overfeatured equipment.

        Lawyer-land could use a lot more of these $1k solut

    • by jcr (53032)

      Please excuse my cynicism.

      Noting to excuse. The FDA probably kills more people than the DOD.

      -jcr

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Vellmont (569020)


      I'm guessing that car-parts-incubators is just radical enough to get anyone who tries to market it into trouble. Even if it saved a million livess, it would bring a thousand lawsuits and while I'm sure if some parents saw an infant die because of a lack of incubators, they would say these are needed, but if an infant dies while it's in an incubator, they'll look for someone to blame. Not that commercial units are any more reliable. But what judge is going to beleive that a $1000 unit was just as good as a $

  • No big deal (Score:5, Funny)

    by sleeponthemic (1253494) on Monday December 22, 2008 @04:19AM (#26197931) Homepage
    White trash have been incubating their kids and dogs in sealed cars in parking lots around the world for years.
  • Just hook them up to a hamster wheel- the running will keep them warm. Plus it will build their muscles. No need for a muffler, if you get them exposed to all the toxins early enough they will grow up nice and monstrous (good for NBA/NFL ticket sales). And just think how many cars we will be saving from silly reuse when we can encapsulate homeless people in them and then present them to French art critics as "Still Life in Auto".

  • Almost any medical device or drug can be made dirt cheap if you throw enough safety considerations out of the window.

    Or do these guys want to tell me that those $1000 also include R&D (just how many hours did they spend designing it?), biocompatibility testing (I don't think most materials used in cars undergo this by default), electrical/mechanical/chemical hazard analysis, etc.

    Also, they're comparing the parts&labor price of their contraption to the list price of an actual incubator. Sorry guys, y

    • The other >$30k are R&D, testing, support, etc, and of course a fat profit.

      Based upon the typical behaviour of most businesses in the health services business sector, I'd say it's more likely that the per machine cost of parts&labor, (including R&D, testing and support) comes to about $1000, The remainder is a fat profit.

      . The fact that a couple of guys can whip up what is essentially a free replacement, is an indictment of our health services industry but should come as no surprise to a
    • The ten highest paid Pharmeitcal company CEOs together earned $200,000,000 in 2008 (yes, that's two hundred million split amongst ten people in one year). The top twenty earners make that number over 300M. That means every person in the USA who bought any form of medication gave one dollar of that to one of twenty people. That's why we don't have cheap drugs in the USA, NOT becuase of pure research and development costs, but becuase of fat-cat greed.

      How much of the pharma companies executive compensatio
      • by bondsbw (888959)

        If you didn't give that dollar to the CEO, it's not like the company will take a dollar off the cost. They know you'll pay it.

        My question is, why do these large companies feel compelled to give one person as much money as 500 workers combined? What could that one person possibly be doing that is worth so much money to the company?

        I'm not saying that a CEO should only be paid $40K, but let's get real... the company would profit much more by cutting his salary to the 6 figure range plus stock options.

        • Agreed - Let's assume that each level of management entitles a person to 1.5 times the previous wage.

          I've tried to work this out using somewhat reasonable titles for the appropriate 'sphere' of influence
          I can't believe many organizations have this many layers of management, but if they do ...

          worker =~ 50K (I'll be generous)
          team leader =~ 75K
          supervisor =~ 110K
          department head =~ 165K
          division head =~ 250K
          group head =~ 375K
          region head =~ 550K
          global vice-head =~835K
          global head =~ 1.25M
          CEO =~ 1.8
    • The high cost of equipment creates a barrier to adoption of the devices. Can't afford it? Tough, you'll have to do without. That's a basic free-market element.

      As a physician or health-care provider, you'd be faced with a choice - do nothing, and suffer a X% infant mortality rate; or hack something together out of available components that does the job, reducing the infant mortality rate by Y%. What's the correct choice? That'll depend on what X and Y are. Beyond that, there are social implications (
    • by mpe (36238)
      Almost any medical device or drug can be made dirt cheap if you throw enough safety considerations out of the window.

      It's also likely to depend on exactly what those "safety" considerations are.

      Or do these guys want to tell me that those $1000 also include R&D (just how many hours did they spend designing it?), biocompatibility testing (I don't think most materials used in cars undergo this by default)

      Yet cars are typically sold with the idea of transporting humans.

      electrical/mechanical/chemical
  • Now, where those new (OEM) parts, third party parts or did they go to the local junk yard to get parts?
  • [From a courtroom transcript]

    Prosecutor: So according to your earlier testimony, the defendents were travelling in the breakdown lane at a high rate of speed. Am I correct?

    Trooper: Yes, that's correct.

    Prosecutor: So what happened when you pull them over and approached the operator of the vehicle?

    Trooper: The male defendent stated that the female defendent was his wife, and that she was going into labor. I offered to help them after I issued their citation, but they refused.

    Prosecutor: They refused?

  • who is an uncurable petrolhead. It's like he was born in the engine compartment of an automobile.
  • The power could be generated by using humans as an energy source like in The Matrix.

  • but the incubator they have developed can be built for less than $1,000

    Until you include the insurance against being sued. In America anything medical has to be insured against enormous law suits. It s unrelated to the risk of causing damage to pateints. It is very closely related to the potential profit from lawyers.

    And the FA approval orocess could reasonably be expted to add $1,000,000 to the cost of each unit if you are not careful.

    • by Thelasko (1196535)
      Mod Parent Up!

      When I was in engineering school, my manufacturing professor held up two screws. Both screws were nearly identical, except one was for orthopedic surgery and the other was not. He told us the orthopedic screw cost 100 times what the other screw cost, and asked us to come up with reasons why. Most peoples said things like quality control, tighter tolerances, different materials, or cleanliness specs. The correct answer was insurance.

      Next time you take your pet to the animal hospital, lo
  • It was on an episode of Red Green. Pretty good one, too.
  • More people, especially children, living in poverty stricken countries. And, more reasons for those fake charities to beg for money.

  • This is pretty cool - I remember when Kris Olson started talking about this project (he was one of my attendings at MGH). In any event, it's good to see that they have reached their goal. Having spent time in Africa where there's no shortage of newly donated equipment but a dearth of people to fix broken equipment, this should be a huge deal.

  • by sunking2 (521698) on Monday December 22, 2008 @11:05AM (#26200307)
    I bet they spend a heck of alot less to build their units. How much can a heat lamp and thermostat cost.
  • let's see what makes medical equipment expensive -using defined processes for everything. -using quality control everywhere -getting the approvals/certifications/etc. Cut all this and your incubator is nothing else than an temperatur and humidity controlled box supplied by clean (=filtered) air. You can get that for less than 1000 dollar if you manufacture it in China (and it will still be an order of magnitude more safe than any solution involving used part or parts not designed for the purpose).

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