The Big Idea: How can a box of light help treat infant jaundice?

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by Kirk Davis
August 09, 2016
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The Big Idea: How can a box of light help treat infant jaundice?

A team of ASU entrepreneurs has developed an innovative and inexpensive solution to the problem of infant jaundice in developing countries.

Full transcript

Lauren Reynolds: So, how can a box of light help treat infant jaundice? Let’s find out, on the Big Idea.

[text: how can a box of light help treat infant jaundice?]

Reynolds: Fourteen million newborns develop infant jaundice each year.

Jaundice, a condition characterized by the yellowing of the skin and the sclera of the eye, is caused by an excessive amount of bilirubin in the blood.

Bilirubin is the yellow pigment by-product of the breakdown of red blood cells. When an infant is born early, the baby's liver isn't strong enough to eliminate it, and so it builds up in the blood.

[animation text: live function, bilirubin levels, normal skin tone, jaundiced skin tone]

Chase Garrett, co-founder and VP, Neolight: In developing countries, just Africa and India alone, over 1,000 babies die everyday and so if we can do just any bit to help that number go down to zero we want to do that as soon as we can.

Reynolds: If not treated properly, infant jaundice can lead to deafness and cerebral palsy -- even brain damage.

It's estimated that seven million babies with infant jaundice don't receive adequate treatment, and one hundred thousand develop hyperbilirubinemia, where perilously high levels of bilirubin can lead to brain damage.

This most commonly occurs in the developing world, in places like India, which is where Sivakumar Palaniswamy, a graduate engineering student at ASU, first witnessed it.                                                                                                     

Vivek Kopparthi, co-founder and CEO, Neolight: We saw a scenario where there was stark naked babies who were all yellow and sweating. They were being treated for jaundice under one lamp that was hung from the ceiling by a rope.

Sivakumar Palaniswamy, co-founder and CTO, Neolight: It was completely disheartening to see that those babies were trying to survive one more day. That day I took an oath to myself to save these babies in the developing community.

Reynolds: Normally, phototherapy using the blue-green spectrum of light rays helps break down the excessive bilirubin, so that the body can excrete it. But in the developing world, a safe phototherapy option may not be available.

[animation text: live function, bilirubin levels, normal skin tone, jaundiced skin tone]

Kopparthi: The devices that are currently used to treat jaundice currently are big, bulky, they’re expensive, they’re about 5-foot tall and they consume about 100 to 150 watts of electricity.

Name: In India there’s a state called Asam. Sixty percent of jaundice deaths happen in that state and twenty percent of that state has full electricity.

[animation: jaundice deaths in India (%), reliable electricity (%)]

Reynolds: A new ASU startup called NEOLIGHT is determined to change this. They've designed an innovative technology using LED lights and solar power to treat infant jaundice. Using funding from ASU's Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, they created a prototype utilizing tools at Techshop, an innovative new maker space in nearby Chandler.

[text: Edson student entrepreneur initiative]

Reynolds: And they have two types of treatment approaches, one for the developing world, and one for the US.

Garrett: We’ve developed the world’s quickest and most efficient device to treat jaundice. Our core technology is the same but we’ve been able to gear the features to work for both markets.

Kopparthi: SKYLIFE is a device that is primarily is used for treating jaundice in infants who are born in the U.S. We also have another product called SUNLIFE, which runs off solar power. So this device can essentially treat jaundice in all developing countries like Southeast Asia, Africa, India in those areas where there are power constraints, rural areas where you don’t even have a power grid access to electricity. 

Reynolds: This prototype will soon help gain approval for the device from the government.

Kopparthi: We should be ready with an FDA clearance by the end of this year and be selling our first device on the market and saving the first baby.

Palaniswamy: To me, it’s not a company. It’s a collaborative movement that we started to eradicate jaundice.

Reynolds: With the help of medical centers in Phoenix and Los Angeles, Neolight is continuing to test the device. But one day soon, this idea treat infant jaundice. For The Big Idea, I’m Lauren Reynolds.