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Center for Global Health Impact

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CGHI Research

Medical experts, researchers, designers, academics, and students come together at the Center for Global Health Impact to create better global health solutions for the future. Our research primarily focuses on leveraging new technologies to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and revolutionize healthcare distribution.


Improving Cancer Surgery through Virtual Reality

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancer-related causes of death in the developing world. Surgery is essential for cervical cancer management, but the current number of trained surgeons in the developing world is vastly inadequate. Therefore, it is imperative that we find ways to more effectively and efficiently train surgeons to treat cervical cancer patients in the developing world.

The virtual reality (VR) for cancer surgery project aims to reduce the time and cost required to train surgeons to perform radical hysterectomies. When combined with clinical training, VR technology has the potential to significantly reduce the time and cost of surgical training in low-resource settings. Studies of VR training and laparoscopic surgery have shown that the training time required for a surgical novice to reach the skill level of an intermediately skilled surgeon can be halved for some surgical procedures. Similarly, VR-trained surgeons are less likely to make surgical errors on VR-trained procedures than those receiving standard surgical training. The virtual reality for cancer surgery project utilizes inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment, resulting in a total equipment cost to the end user of less than $2,000 USD. This presents an opportunity to reduce the per-surgeon cost of surgical training and thereby increase the availability of appropriately trained surgeons in low-resource settings.

In the summer of 2018, the virtual reality cancer surgery technology will be evaluated in a randomized
clinical trial with surgical trainees in Zambia. Surgical trainees will be randomly assigned to one of two training conditions: VR-enhanced surgical training or traditional surgical training. The goal of this research is to assess the feasibility of the technology and compare the effectiveness and cost of VR-enhanced training with that of traditional surgical training.

Learn more on the VR for cancer surgery blog.


Screening for Cancer with a Smartphone



Nicholas Saulnier ’15, ’16, a master’s degree student and graduate research assistant in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, always hoped he’d be able to solve problems and help people over the course of his career as an electrical engineer. To his surprise, that time came sooner than he expected.“I never thought I’d be able to make a difference while I was still a student,” says Saulnier, one of several SMU engineering students to help develop hardware and software to screen for cervical cancer with a smart phone. The technology, for use in remote regions of the globe where physicians are in short supply, is being tested in Zambia.

Department of Electrical Engineering Chair Dinesh Rajan, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Engineering, conceived of the research project in 2014 with Eric G. Bing, professor of global health in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, during a research meeting of the SMU Center for Global Health Impact, which Bing directs. Other project members include Prasanna Rangarajan, research assistant professor, and master’s student Soham Soneji.“It’s meant to assist the person in the field, a nurse or other medical practitioner, to make better decisions,” Rajan says. “Cervical cancer is a curable cancer when detected early. But there’s a lack of experienced doctors in many countries, or people must travel far to reach a clinic to be examined.”The smart phone technology leverages a well-known algorithm used in a wide variety of applications, Rajan says. The SMU engineers coupled the algorithm with hardware that improves performance of smart phone cameras for taking pictures in low light, where focus is difficult and impeded by scattering reflections from the speculum used in the cervical examination. The software compares the photo to pictures stored in a vast medical database. When a possible abnormality is detected, patients are referred to a clinic or specialist for further evaluation.

“Technology must and will be leveraged to improve healthcare for everyone and break the divide between the medical haves and have-nots — this is just among the early steps in that direction,” Rajan says.

Bing saw the need while a senior fellow and director of global health for the George W. Bush Institute, where he co-founded Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a public-private partnership to combat cervical cancer in Africa.

“Through innovative and interdisciplinary research like that which is being conducted at SMU, our students and faculty can help save lives throughout the world,” Bing says. 


Mobile Phones for Health

Dr. Eric Larson is an assistant professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. He received his B.S. and M.S. from Oklahoma State University and his PhD from the University of Washington, Seattle, where he was advised by MacArthur Genius Fellow Dr. Shwetak Patel. His work has been commercialized and he holds a variety of patents for sustainability sensing and mobile phone-based health sensing. Dr. Larson’s work in water sensing has garnered significant impact in the sustainability community and is the basis of the new product: the Belkin Echo for water conservation. Since coming to SMU in 2013, Dr. Larson has focused primarily on medical health sensing from mobile phones, where he has helped to develop applications for newborn jaundice screening, real time cognitive load monitoring, and lung function measurement, among others. His work in mobile health is the first of its kind to seek FDA approval and is creating a new paradigm for medical sensing out of the doctor’s office. Dr. Larson is an avid believer in flipping the clinic, where health care technology is augmented through controlled, reliable data collection in our everyday lives—especially using electronic devices that are already ubiquitous such as mobile phones.
Dr. Larson is a regular contributor and program member for the international conference on ubiquitous computing. Dr. Larson’s work has been published in numerous conferences and journals disseminated through many different cross-disciplinary venues: ICIP, CHI, MobiSys, PERCOM, UbiComp, DEV, WCCI, SPIE, and Pervasive, garnering six best paper nominations in four years. He has also successfully completed seven patents in that time. Dr. Larson is active in signal processing education for computer scientists and has co-authored a text book for teaching signal processing to computer science students. He has created new courses aimed at educating students about leveraging the power of smartphones, the coming age of ubiquitous technology, and cognitive computing through data science. He currently resides in Dallas, TX with his wife and two children.


Diagnostic Light

Alexander R. Lippert is pioneering new optical molecular diagnostics to monitor and understand diseases ranging from asthma to cancer. His research team has designed chemical systems that light up in response to markers of airway inflammation using chemistry similar to that found in glowsticks and fireflies. This optical signal can be detected using widely available cellphone cameras, opening up life saving opportunities for mobile health. Dr. Lippert is an Assistant Professor in the department of Chemistry in the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at SMU.