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PATH will lead a new research project to develop a low-cost, cell phone–based system for human milk banks to monitor the safety of donated breast milk, supported by a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative.

The system combines the power of cell phone technology with the simplicity of a low-tech flash-heating pasteurization process to ensure that breast milk donated to feed vulnerable infants is free of bacteria and viruses, including HIV, while retaining its nutritional value.

Developing a prototype monitoring system

The 12-month grant was made to a multidisciplinary team that includes PATH and two partner organizations—the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington and the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa.

The team will develop and field-test a networked temperature sensing system using FoneAstra, a cell phone technology, to accurately monitor and validate temperatures during flash-heating. It will provide real-time, audiovisual feedback to users, allow automated supervisor monitoring, and archive results for review and audit.

Flash-heating is a simple, effective way to pasteurize breast milk that is more affordable for human milk banks in low-resource settings than standard commercial-grade pasteurization. The total cost for the monitoring system will be less than US$100, compared to commercial-grade pasteurizers, which cost up to $12,000.

Increasing confidence in donated breast milk supplies

Many health care facilities in South Africa do not utilize milk banks because of perceptions that the milk may be unsafe. Monitoring and verification of milk temperatures, which must reach high pasteurization temperatures to be effective, is a challenge in resource-limited settings.

The project’s goal is to increase confidence in donated breast milk supplies and increase the provision of breast milk pasteurized through flash-heating to vulnerable infants, a potentially lifesaving nutrition intervention for infants who are preterm, low birthweight, severely malnourished, born to HIV-positive mothers, or orphaned.

Evaluating effectiveness and acceptability

The team will conduct a user assessment of the system at a South African human milk bank to evaluate the effectiveness and usability of the system and validate that users can correctly operate the monitoring device.

Partners will then collect milk samples to assess the safety of donor milk treated through flash-heating using the FoneAstra monitoring system compared with commercial pasteurization and flash-heating without the FoneAstra monitoring system in place. Through focus group discussions with human milk bank staff, users, and other stakeholders, they will evaluate the acceptability of flash-heating using the system as a step toward possible future scale-up of the technology.

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Gates Foundation and launched in 2008 that enables scientists and researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent global health and development challenges. Successful projects have an opportunity to receive a follow-up grant of up to US$1 million.

More information

Posted November 7, 2011.