MIT's Medicine Man is a master of invention

Jose Gomez-Marquez thinks some of the best inventions are the most simple. He's making vaccines and other drugs for the developing world.

Jose Gomez-Marquez plays with toys a lot. In truth, playing with toys allows Gomez-Marquez to think outside the box and dream up new solutions to new vaccines and other medical technologies for developing countries.

As program director for the Innovations in International Health at MIT, Gomez-Marquez is quite a designer. Here's a look into Gomez-Marquez's mind and play space:

What inspires you?

You can find Transformers in a small city in the developing world, but you can't find essential medical devices.

I try to spend a lot of time in toy stores. Well-designed toys have attributes that are useful for medical devices: they have to be safe; easy to make and easy to fix; elegant mechanisms open to hacking; and their supply chain is fantastic, so they make great prototyping platforms.

What new medical device are you designing now?

I'm designing a lab-on-a-chip that uses paper for multiple diagnostics, that allows the patients to decide which one to use. I'm also designing an aerial drone to transport samples and medicines from A to B.

Along with Kris Olson from CIMIT, I'm building a solar powered fridge that can tell when the patient takes tuberculosis (TB) meds.

My colleague is Anna Young. She is working on a solar powered sterilizer that just won an award from the World Health Organization.

What is the best DIY kit you've created?

Of the 5 MEDIKits, I am most proud of the DIY Lab-on-a-Chip kit and the PuzzleDx kit. The puzzle pieces come together to create glucose, pregnancy and other types of tests used in hospitals.

How was it used?

We are in the early stages of our roll-out. We have seen nurses and pathologists create test combinations to detect things as simple as pH to experimental scenarios for HIV testing.

Last year one of my pre-Christmas gifts was definitely the story of a doctor in Nicaragua who attended of of our lectures on medical device invention and saved a baby from an asthma attack. He replicated an origami spacer and attached it to an inhaler, something we taught in the course. That feeling is as good as it gets for geeks like me.

What do you want to invent next?

A robot! A baby robot!

My friend Ryan Scott Bardsley is a roboticist and we are working on ideas to create the world's first affordable baby patient simulator. We are also working on a device that clips on top of old medical device monitors and logs the data to a nearby station. [I want to make a] printer that produces DIY diagnostics for nurses and lab techs in the field.

What advice can you give to anyone who wants to invent something that can help developing countries?

Step one: try it.

It's never the right moment and you'll never have enough training.

Build it. Your prototypes can tell you a lot more than your drawings.

Ask for help and understand that it comes with a bias based on the person's expertise.

Learn from them what's useful, but begin to construct a solution architecture from several sources or you are bound to be told that your idea is not that great.

If you are ruffling feathers, it may be a good thing.

It's called disruptive innovation for a reason.

Be humble. Your users in developing countries are your most important collaborators. Talk to them as co-designers and not just your customers. Dust off their hacks and sprinkle in some engineering and design and you will uncover a fantastic invention.

What's your most influential field experience?

There are two. The first time we deployed the beta versions of our MEDIKits we were nervous. My team, Anna Young and Lisa Schlect, held our breath when we opened the boxes and let our students play with our construction system. We didn't know if they were going to stare at them puzzled. Would the group of doctors, engineering professors, and nurses find them childish?

Fifteen minutes into the session they were building, hacking and modifying the kits themselves by adding new parts to make their own prototypes!

The next one was last Christmas during an engineering field trial of XoutTB. We left our pipette at home (3 hours away), so I ended up pipetting samples with a pack of soft drink straws under a mango tree in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

There was a crowd of around 30 TB patients just watching us methodically run our little test through its paces. They were so grateful, so eager for hope when I talked to them. I suppose that is what doctors and nurses experience a lot. For me, it served as a sharp reminder that at the end of our gadgets is a person.

Why is it important to build from the field first, before creating it in the lab?

You can start in the lab. You have to take advantage of your ideas and try something. If you engage the user early on as a designer you will find the invention is enhanced. If you give them confidence to design and invent by your side, they will always pleasantly surprise you. They may not know engineering rules, but that's often what makes their ideas so great: their suggestions are unbounded.

You end up with leapfrogging solutions.

How is the TB compliance project coming along?

It's an exciting time for XoutTB because our platform technology is now able to cover many more conditions. So we are talking to pharmaceutical companies on how to expand our solution. We've had bureaucratic delays regarding our clinical trials and some funding shortfalls, but we have a fantastic team and are continuing the work as planned.

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