Engineering for Global Health

Mechanical Engineering Professor Dr. Reinhard Vehring and his research team are hopeful that their current work will make a difference in the lives of people as far away as Kenya. The team is pursuing bacteriophage therapy, an emerging trend in health research with the potential to address the rise in antibiotic resistance. Bacteriophage are viruses that attack bacteria, injecting the bacteria with virus DNA. Not only does this shut down the bacteria, it also reproduces the virus, so there are more viruses to infect more bacteria.

Dr. Vehring has recently secured funding to develop new bacteriophage technologies to combat food-borne bacteria. In particular, he envisions dry powder bacteriophage products that can be applied to foods, like poultry, to decrease the bacterial load on the food before it is delivered to consumers. The team is working with collaborators in Kenya because one particular food-borne bacteria, Campylobacter jejuni, is prevalent there and kills nearly 9% of people who become infected, mostly children. Because the bacteriophage will be stabilized in a dry powder, it will not require refrigeration and will tolerate high temperatures, which is important for its success in Kenya. 

Dr. Vehring’s Particle Engineering Group was the first in the world to demonstrate that bacteriophage can be manufactured in a dry powder via spray drying. Now the team is turning their attention to the Campylobacter project in Kenya. PhD student Nicholas Carrigy is responsible for setting the formulation of the powder and determining the parameters for the spray drying process as well as the stability measurement protocol.

“This project is interesting both in its humanitarian and engineering aspects. It has the potential to save lives,” Mr. Carrigy says. “My role is to create a dry powder bacteriophage product that can be inexpensively produced on a large scale and that has long-term stability at temperatures encountered in Kenya.”

The team is working with the University of Nottingham in the UK and the Kenya Medical Research Institute. Ultimately the goal is to have the powder manufactured in Kenya using the technology Dr. Vehring and his team develop. Dr. Vehring hopes to bring the technology to Kenya some time in 2019. Meanwhile, collaborators in Kenya are busy laying the groundwork for its introduction.  

“Our collaborators, linked with us through the non-profit organization Phages for Global Health, are engaging with policymakers, consumers, and processors in Kenya,” explains Mr. Carrigy. “We need to ensure that the product gets to market, is accepted by the local culture, and can be manufactured locally.”

Mr. Carrigy is busy with his PhD work but finds it very satisfying. “You are given a lot of responsibility to lead your own projects and design your own experiments, but there is support and feedback from your labmates and supervisor.”

He has also had opportunities to travel during his graduate work, including to a conference in the French Riviera where he was invited to give a podium presentation regarding bacteriophage aerosol therapy for respiratory applications, and a six-month research exchange at the University of Sydney in Australia. Most recently, he attended the Evergreen Meeting in Washington State, a conference devoted exclusively to the latest global developments in bacteriophage research.

If you think you might like to make a difference to global health through engineering, contact Dr. Vehring here. “We’re always looking for new, enthusiastic students,” he says.