Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Inexpensive Aquarium Bubbler Saves Preemies' Lives

A nurse attaches the low-cost breathing machine (far left) to an infant at The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.
Jocelyn Brown
Rice University
A nurse attaches the low-cost breathing machine (far left) to an infant at The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.

There's only one thing better than having a good idea, and that's having a good idea that really works.

Earlier this year, I reported on some students at Rice University who had designed a low-cost medical device to help premature infants breathe.

The key to making the medical instrument affordable was an unlikely component: a simple aquarium pump that you could pick up at a pet store.

Turns out the innovative instrument — aquarium pump and all — not only works in the lab but also saves babies lives out in the real world.

The breathing system boosted the survival rate of newborns with respiratory problems by 60 percent at a rural hospital in Malawi, bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum and her team reportedWednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Many premature infants have a hard time breathing because their lungs aren't fully developed. In the U.S., this typically isn't a problem. The babies are simply hooked up to a device called a bubble CPAP, which delivers a steady stream of air to an infant's lungs. The pressure makes it easier for the underdeveloped lungs to function.

CPAP devices are standard issue for hospitals in the developed world. But they are way too expensive for low resource hospitals in poor countries.

What made the Rice University bubble CPAP attractive is its cost: about $350, or one fifteenth the cost of standard CPAPs. The students cut the cost of the instrument and its maintenance by using two cheap aquarium pumps.

The team tested out the bargain bubbler on 87 newborns with servere respiratory distress at The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantrye, Malawi. There was a 71 percent survival rate for neonates on the bubble CPAP, compared with 44 percent survival for infants who did not use the CPAP.

The device also greatly helped out babies with very low birth weights and a dangerous type of infection, called sepsis — making the bubbler one of the good ideas that really works.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Latest Stories