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NIH Opens $1M Maternal Health Diagnostics Challenge

Pregnant woman

(Sergio Santos,, Flickr)

7 Dec. 2021. National Institutes of Health began a competition for low-cost diagnostic technologies to improve maternal health, particularly in low-resource regions. The challenge as a total prize purse of $1 million, with registrations due by 1 Apr. 2022, and submissions accepted from 5 Jan. to 22 Apr. 2022.

NIH says improving maternal health worldwide is one of its strategic research objectives. Rates of maternal death related to pregnancy, says NIH, remain unacceptably high. According to data from the U.N., 211 maternal deaths from pregnancy complications or childbirth per 100,000 live births occurred in 2017. One of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals is to reduce that rate to less than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030.

About half of those deaths are caused by postpartum hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia — a form of high blood pressure and liver or kidney damage — and bacterial infections, with 94 percent of those deaths occurring in low- or middle-income countries. And the U.S. experiences about 700 maternal deaths each year, particularly among Black and Hispanic women.

Diagnosing early signs of pregnancy complications is difficult in many parts of the world, says NIH, due to a lack of low-cost tests for diagnosing these conditions at the point of care. In addition, maternal diagnostics are often not integrated or linked to electronic health records, requiring extra human intervention to add-in results of maternal health tests.

NIH says developing inexpensive diagnostics for postpartum hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia, and bacterial infections readily available at the point of care can detect these conditions and help prevent many of these maternal deaths. To help make those tests a reality, the agency opened its NIH Technology Accelerator Challenge, or NTAC, for Maternal Health. Participants are encouraged to design solutions with molecular, cellular, or metabolic sensing and diagnostic technologies for rapid medical decision-making and improve patient outcomes, leading to fewer complications and maternal deaths.

Proposals evaluated on multiple criteria

Submissions are expected to address at least two of the following four maternal health complications:

Placental disruptions

Hemorrhaging issues, such as anemia

Hypertensive disease, such as pre-eclampsia

Infections, such as sepsis

Participants are expected to provide detailed designs for their technologies addressing at least two of the four maternal health complications, along with initial feasibility data, as well as a plan for translating and developing the technology for use in low-resource settings, including integration with digital health records systems. NIH says technologies will be evaluated on technical, clinical, analytic, cost, usability, and impact criteria.

National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the NIH division managing the NTAC for Maternal Health challenge, says it wants to apply lessons learned so far in responding to Covid-19 to improving maternal health. “In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic,” says NIBIB director Bruce Tromberg in an NIH statement, “the bioengineering community demonstrated the speed with which novel point-of-care diagnostics can be deployed. The field is now poised to deliver solutions in many other areas of need, and maternal health is an especially urgent target.”

The challenge competition has a total prize purse of $1 million, with three top prizes of $500,000, $300,000, and $150,000. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a partner in the NTAC for Maternal Health challenge, and plans to review the top submissions for opportunities to offer further developmental support. Proposals are accepted from 5 Jan. to 22 Apr. 2022, with registration required by 1 Apr. 2022. Judging begins in May, with winners announced in July 2022.

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