Sanika RaneShare on Pinterest
Credit: Photographs by Robert Gomez

Meet the four winners who’ve demonstrated dedication to the advancement against a rare or chronic disease either through research, patient advocacy, raising awareness, or community building.

As a teenager, Sanika Rane volunteered at two hospitals in the Atlanta area. She engaged in craft projects with pediatric patients, brought ice chips to women in labor, and helped stock shelves.

“This is where my passion for public health began,” Rane tells Healthline. “I was able to really interact with patients, doctors, and nurses at a personal level and see the social aspect of medicine — getting to know people, understanding where health and sickness and illness comes from, and how it impacts a person’s life.”

When she entered the direct medical program at Rice University, she wanted to build on her interest in public health. She began working toward a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and a minor in global health technologies.

“Essentially the two equate into this overall understanding of public health. Some classes I took on anthropology were fascinating [and looked] at how disease and illness relate to things like socioeconomic standings, race, gender, and income,” explains Rane.

One assignment in particular allowed her to delve into the medical challenges faced by developing nations. As part of her minor, she was assigned a semester-long design project with a research team made up of her peers. The team was tasked with designing a cheaper alternative to help treat gastroschisis, a rare congenital birth defect that occurs when a baby’s intestines form outside of the body. Survival rate of babies born with gastroschisis in the United States is approximately 90 percent — the result of a simple treatment. In developing nations such as Uganda, however, the survival rate is minimal. This is due to both access to and cost of treatment.

Rane’s team designed a prototype for a less-expensive Silo (silicone) bag, into which the intestines of a baby with gastroschisis are placed and then inserted back into their abdominal cavity. Rane’s team consulted with professors, visiting doctors from Uganda, and other students to develop the prototype. The team presented their work at Rice University’s annual George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase in April, where they were honored with the top award, Excellence in Engineering: 1st Place Design.

“It was such an honor, especially since none of us are engineering majors,” says Rane.

We asked Rane about her studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

What prompted you to get into your field of study?

I knew nothing about gastroschisis before I was assigned the project. I had no idea about the devastating effects it [can have] on developing nations. After learning about it for our design project, I wanted to know more. I’m going to forever remember this disease and I’ll always be looking for it in everything I do. I’m in a premedical program so I’ll be looking for it when I’m in medical school and practicing as a medical doctor. For the rest of my life, I want to help with this disease. I want to help improve treatment and make it easier for people to access treatment in [nations like Uganda].

What are your goals for the future as they pertain to gastroschisis?

The goal is to inspire [people], either at a university or somewhere else, to put in the time and effort to bring a low-cost, accessible treatment to developing nations.

I hope to see aspects of our prototype in an actual device that’s patented, manufactured, and implemented in other countries, like Uganda. When we researched cheaper or more effective Silo bags, not much came up. The current bag has been around for so long and works effectively so no one’s tried to improve it. Hopefully, we’ve come up with an idea that’s inspired someone else to take our idea and improve on it. Right now, in its current form, the prototype needs a lot of improvement, especially since we only had a semester to work on it.

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Credit: Photographs by Robert Gomez

What obstacles do you envision encountering, or have you encountered, as you move towards your goal of bringing the Silo bag to market?

It’s a complicated project because we need to figure out how to manufacture the bag, what material to use, and how expensive it will be.

The prototype we made is about $20, but the brunt of that expense is the silicone material we used. Since we can’t presently compromise on the material, which is what drives up the cost, it’s possible that more research is needed to look at using another material.

Then there’s the concern over size. Babies born with gastroschisis typically have holes of differing sizes in their abdominal cavity. This can range from 3 to 10 centimeters and larger. The bags come in every size, though stocking bags of different sizes does drive up the price. To cut costs, we wanted to make one bag that can treat as many babies as possible. With research we found that 4 to 8 centimeters is the typical size for a hole in a baby with gastroschisis. From this research we designed a hand-engineered, 3-D printed ring that actually decreases in size, from 8 centimeters to about 5 centimeters in diameter. This cuts costs since you only have to use one [size] bag to treat many babies. Unfortunately, at this time, we were told that the ring we created is too thick to be placed into a baby’s body, so it’ll need to be thinner.

Moreover, on a typical bag, the top is reinforced with more silicone so it doesn’t tear when it’s hung up on an IV. This extra silicone makes it more expensive. So, we 3-D printed a clamp that screws onto the top of the bag and can be hung from any IV pole. This would also allow hospitals that don’t have access to the special hanging [IV] pole that comes with the gastroschisis bags the opportunity to use them regardless.

What message would you like to give to those within the gastroschisis community?

I was fortunate enough to learn about gastroschisis through my project. I learned about the devastating consequences of being born with this condition in developing countries and I realized that not enough is being done to tackle these issues. From now on, I’ll always think about the disease and what can be done to raise awareness, tackle the issues surrounding treatment, and prevent the condition altogether. There isn’t enough research being done on gastroschisis and its treatment, especially in developing nations. It’s my hope that in 20 years this has changed and I was able to influence that change.

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.