Gates grant helps work on childhood malnutrition

8 November 2011

Shu Ning Bian (right) demonstrates his device.
Shu Ning Bian (right) demonstrates his device.

If Shu Ning Bian's undergraduate engineering project comes to fruition, newborn babies in the developing world will stand a better chance of staving off malnutrition.

Shu Ning is part of a team, led by Dr Alistair McEwan from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, to receive a US$100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop a non-invasive, solar-powered device measuring body fat in newborns.

Monitoring body composition helps detect newborn malnutrition, a key to reducing infant mortality worldwide. Non-invasive machines currently available are expensive, bulky and unsuitable for use in areas where there is an unreliable electricity supply and little technical expertise.

The Grand Challenges Explorations grant gives Dr McEwan, Professor Heather Jeffery from the School of Public Health and Shu Ning the resources to further test the efficacy of their prototype.

Shu Ning's work on the device came from his search for an Undergraduate Honours Thesis Project, a requirement of his degree. "This spoke to me because it makes the world a better place and involves hands-on work," he says.

Involved from the project's inception, Shu Ning helped write the grant application and was instrumental to building a prototype. Central to the device is an embedded computer running a small algorithm, developed by Shu Ning to measure body fat.

Utilising infrared technology and other off-the-shelf components, the device is solar-powered and the intention is to build a model costing less than five dollars per unit.

"It won't fix malnutrition by itself," says Shu Ning. "But it will allow more people to detect malnutrition early." This will allow for much earlier intervention and more efficient use of scarce healthcare resources in developing countries, he says.

Currently unnamed, the device is being tested for accuracy at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. While results to date are encouraging, they are preliminary and more data needs to be collected to advance the project. Funding from the Grand Challenges Exploration grant allows the team to hire a research nurse to develop a more structured and robust patient testing program, delivering solid results to advance the program.

Like all grants from the Grand Challenges Exploration program, this one could potentially receive a follow-on grant of US$1 million from the foundation.

Dr McEwan oversees the University of Sydney's bioelectronics program, combining electrical engineering and biology to make inexpensive physiological monitors that reduce the strain on public health budgets.

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