Allie Sibole, who earned her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins through a Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design program, displays the Ebola protective suit prototype. (Photo by Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University.)

Youseph Yazdi was surprised by the number of people who jumped in to help design better protective gear for people helping Ebola victims – everyone from freshmen to robotics experts to a wedding-dress maker.

But he was even more surprised when the solutions the team came up with at the hackathon at Johns Hopkins University attracted the notice of leading producers of protective clothing. A version of the suit they designed will be manufactured by DuPont and available early next year, the university announced Monday.

“It was a bit of a shocker,” said Yazdi, the executive director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering Innovation and Design at Hopkins, “when major companies approached us and said, ‘Wow, you came up with something new, that we’re interested in.’

“You’d think people at companies doing this all their lives,” would have better ideas, a better understanding of the situation. “But if you bring in the right experts, with bright young people who are looking at the problem for the first time, you can get amazing innovations….

“A crucial element of the innovation ecosystem is to have fresh eyes on the problem.”

After the U.S. Agency for International Development signaled a need for help — and Ebola’s grim toll in  Africa, and on front-line health-care workers had become frighteningly obvious last winter — scores of people volunteered to help. More than 11,000 people died after outbreaks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and 500 health workers died from Ebola infections.

“Hundreds of nurses, midwives, and physicians selflessly responded to the Ebola outbreak and lost their lives trying to save others,” Leslie Mancuso, president and CEO of Jhpiego, a global health affiliate at Hopkins, said in a release. The new protective suit can help health workers respond more safely to any infectious disease.

Working with people from Jhpiego, the Hopkins students, faculty and other experts identified several problems with the suits being used. One was complexity; with multiple pieces, there was more possibility for a mistake being made when a health worker took it off, and a mistake could easily be deadly. So they designed a suit that takes just one zip to remove.

They also included a clear plastic area near the face, after learning that peoples’ perceptions of aid workers in the villages where people were infected dramatically changed the number of people who got treatment.

“We wanted to make it less scary,” Yazdi said, so they redesigned the air flow to ensure that people’s mouths and eyes would be visible. The DuPont-produced suit may include that element.

“We look forward to the next step of making this protective apparel solution available where it is needed for both emergency response and preparedness,” Marc Doyle, senior vice president DuPont Safety & Protection said in a release.

The suit will be tested in Liberia by Jhpiego. With the Hopkins-DuPont collaboration, people from the university will help evaluate prototype garments and teach people to use them, while the company will handle the commercialization of the product. They expect them to be on the market in 2016.

Students were working on the design challenge late into the night, Yazdi said. “They love that they’re having an impact. I had a student say, ‘Up to now this school of engineering has taught me how to be an engineer; this is the first time I get to be an engineer.'”

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