Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems. Each initiative is an experiment in the use of challenges to focus innovation on making an impact. Individual challenges address some of the same problems, but from differing perspectives.
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Yilan Ye from Tsinghua University in China will develop a small, self-adhesive menstrual product based on the suction cups of octopuses that can be fixed securely but reversibly inside the vaginal opening to block the flow of blood and enable its convenient disposal. They will design it specifically for women and girls in low- and middle-income countries by ensuring it is low-cost, re-usable, safe to apply, and does not require sanitation facilities. They will experiment with different commercialized, biocompatible thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPUs) as the raw materials to produce the adhesive polymers. They will first test these polymers for their ability to be strongly, reversibly and repeatedly stuck to the surface of porcine livers and hearts as surrogates that mimic the moist and irregular skin surface inside the vagina. Finally, they will develop an inject mold to manufacture a prototype for human testing that also contains a soft valve for convenient release.
Richard Bbaale of BanaPads Inc. in Uganda will recycle the discarded pseudo stems of banana plants to produce a non-toxic biopolymer and develop biodegradable sanitary pads for women and girls in underserved communities. Uganda produces roughly 10% of the world's bananas, which results in over 30 million tons per year of pseudo stem waste that is currently left to rot. They will extract the cellulose from the pseudo stem, which is the trunk of the banana plant that is cut off once the bananas have been picked, and use it to synthesize the biopolymer, carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC). This will then be combined with non-toxic additives to produce the different layers of a sanitary pad, namely the water-soluble film, an adhesive, fibrous elastic, and absorbent foam, that can be safely flushed down the toilet and gets degraded by bacteria in the septic sewage. Once the materials have been developed, they will produce a prototype pad for testing.
Naba Dutta of RMIT University in Australia will develop disposable sanitary pads from natural, biodegradable polymers and agricultural byproducts such as cellulose to decrease cost and waste production and improve safety. Disposable pads are generally made from synthetic superabsorbent material that is expensive, has a high carbon footprint and is associated with an increased risk of diseases such as pelvic inflammatory disease. Using their photo-crosslinking method, they will synthesize and test different protein-based hydrogels to produce the absorptive core of the pads, and also synthesize natural esters and test their ability to form an impermeable but breathable barrier layer. They will also test modified soy protein-based gels for adhesive properties, and jute fiber treated with polyphenols extracted from plants for the antibacterial layer. Once the components have been optimized, they will assemble them into a sanitary pad and test its performance compared to commercial pads.
Jennifer Edwards of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom will develop a low-cost material impregnated with a photo-active biocidal compound for producing reusable sanitary products that can be self-cleaned in the sun without the need for water or detergent. Many women and girls in low- and middle-income countries are unable to afford single-use sanitary pads or to properly clean reusable pads, which leads to many of them suffering from chronic infections. To address this, they have developed a series of non-toxic, metal and metal-oxide photoactive catalysts that produce reactive oxygen species when exposed to sunlight, and will test their ability to kill a range of bacterial and fungal pathogens, and to degrade other organic products, such as blood and odor. They will also evaluate cost-effective methods for incorporating them into different fabrics.
Wei Lu of the University of Michigan in the U.S. will develop a reusable sanitary pad from a highly hydrophobic material containing carbon nanofibers, which clot blood, and microfolds that trap it in small pockets on the surface and can be cleaned without water. Disposable pads are expensive and generate substantial waste, making reusable products more attractive in low- and middle-income countries. However, these all require washing with lots of clean water, which is often problematic. They will develop a material that, rather than promoting absorption, instead quickly immobilizes the blood in a solid state on the surface of the pad, which can be removed by simply stretching it. They will develop a prototype with optimized loading of the carbon nanofibers and with three-dimensional origami patterns that effectively capture the blood, protect the skin, and avoid leakage. The prototype will be tested for comfort and performance by volunteers.