Saving babies one snip at a time

Saving babies one snip at a time

Ph.D student receives Gates Foundation grant to create umbilical cord cutting device

 By Allyson Fox

Margo Klar/Photo by Maria Belen Farias

One-and-a-half million neonatal deaths worldwide due to infection, with many beginning as umbilical cord infections; 277,376 neonatal deaths alone attributed to tetanus in one year; and $100,000 granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration for UF student Margo Klar, M.P.H., to find one simple solution to a big problem.

Tetanus disease is just one of many problems that can occur because of the way the umbilical cord is cut. Using a rusty scalpel, placing the umbilical cord on an unsanitary table or cutting with an old razor blade can all lead to umbilical cord infections in babies, said Klar, who has a B.S. in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in public health from Yale University, and is a doctoral student in UF’s Department of Epidemiology. Bacterial infection of the umbilical cord is particularly a problem in developing countries.

Neonatal tetanus is the second leading cause of death from vaccine-preventable diseases among children worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

To address the problem, Klar came up with the idea of creating a simple ceramic cutting device, called Ceramic Umbilical Cord Finger Scissors, and applied for a grant.

“My device makes use of materials that do not rust and are proposed to stay sharper longer and over repetitive use when compared to stainless steel,” Klar said.

It all started while she was a master’s student at Yale University, where one of her professors encouraged her to look at the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health website.

One of the foundation’s top priorities is creating new technologies to improve the health of mothers and newborns. Neonatal tetanus and bacterial infections of the umbilical cord have a huge effect on newborns in developing countries, and this device can potentially save many infants’ lives.

Currently, clean hygiene kits are distributed to developing countries and include a disposable scalpel. But the problem is disposable scalpels are often reused. So Klar knew her device needed to be affordable, stay sharp and be easily cleaned, even after multiple uses. She came up with a vision for a ceramic cutting device and was among approximately 5,000 people to apply for a Gates Foundation grant in November 2010.

Her proposal was one of 89 that received the Grand Challenges Explorations Grant during Round 6.

Klar decided UF was the best place to pursue her grant and her Ph.D.

“I chose to bring my grant to UF because of the interdisciplinary environment it provides,” Klar said.

Creating this device involves many different fields working together. Klar works in engineering, arts and architecture and conducts experiments with bacteria, emerging pathogens and meat sciences.

With a background in chemical engineering, emergency medical sciences, biology and public health, this project brought together different parts of her education. She pitched the device with a specific shape and look in her mind, but she said it is important to be open to new designs and materials.

“It’s not about the device, but (about) its impact,” Klar said. “It’s exciting being able to come up with a new technology that could potentially have a huge impact on the outcomes of babies in developing countries.”

Linda Cottler, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Epidemiology, said Klar is the first student at UF to receive funding from the Gates Foundation.

“We’re very proud of her,” Cottler said. “Margo is a very innovative thinker, and she pursues her ideas, which is how she got funded in the first place.”