Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, Rice University

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, guided by the belief that all of the world’s people deserve access to health innovation, Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s research and teaching focus on developing low-cost, high-performance technology for low-resource settings. She is known for providing vulnerable populations in the developing world access to life- saving health technology, focusing on diseases and conditions that cause high morbidity and mortality, such as cervical and oral cancer, premature birth, and malaria. Professor Richards-Kortum’s work in appropriate point-of-care screening technologies has earned her induction into the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Rebecca is the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University. Previously, she held the Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering #10 and was a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was also a Distinguished Teaching Professor. After receiving a B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1985, she continued her graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received an MS in Physics in 1987 and a PhD in Medical Physics in 1990. She joined the faculty in Bioengineering at Rice University in 2005 and served as Chair of Bioengineering from 2005-2008 and 2012-2014.

Dr. Richards-Kortum’s research group is developing miniature imaging systems to enable better screening for oral, esophageal, and cervical cancer and their precursors at the point-of-care. She led development of a novel high resolution microendoscope capable of real-time, subcellular imaging of epithelial tissue. Her team developed low-cost (<$2500), robust hardware platforms, including a tablet- and cell-phone based system. Together with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine and the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, she has carried out clinical trials involving more than 1,000 patients, which show that the device has promise to improve early diagnosis of esophageal, oral, and cervical precancer. In a prospective, multi-center clinical trial carried out in the US and China, high resolution microendoscopy improved specificity for esophageal precancer from 29% to 79%, without reducing sensitivity. Clinical trials of over 15,000 patients in China, Brazil, and El Salvador are now underway.

Her group has integrated advances in nanotechnology and microfabrication to develop novel, low-cost sensors to detect infectious diseases at the point-of-care, including HIV, cryptosporidium, malaria, and Tuberculosis. Her group developed a low-cost sensor to detect hemoglobin concentration; the device reduced per test cost by more than 100-fold (less than US$0.01 per test) compared to the standard of care. She led development of novel nucleic acid tests to enable diagnosis of HIV in infants in low-resource settings, introducing the first integrated paper and plastic device to enable isothermal amplification of HIV DNA.

Together with Maria Oden, Dr. Richards-Kortum led development and dissemination of low-cost, robust technologies to improve neonatal survival in sub-Saharan Africa. Her team developed a $160 bubble CPAP device to treat premature infants with respiratory distress syndrome; the device delivers the same flow and pressure as systems used in the US, at 30-fold reduction in cost. Initial clinical evaluation showed that the device improved survival rates from 24% to 65%, mirroring the impact of CPAP when it was introduced in the US in the 1970s. The device has been implemented at all government hospitals in Malawi, and introduced in Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa. In 2014, CPAP was recognized by the UN as one of 10 innovations that can save the lives of women and children now. The team is now developing a comprehensive set of technologies to enable provision of essential newborn care at district hospitals in Africa, with the goal to equip a district hospital serving a catchment area of 250,000 people for a cost of less than $10,000.

At Rice University, Dr. Richards-Kortum has established new educational programs in global health technologies. She founded the Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program in which undergraduate students from multiple backgrounds learn to think beyond geographic and disciplinary boundaries to solve challenges in global health. In 2012, Science awarded BTB the Prize for Inquiry Based Instruction, which recognizes outstanding examples of inquiry-based and design-based engineering education modules. In addition, the National Academy of Engineering recognized BTB with the Real-World Education Prize for successfully integrating real world experiences into undergraduate curriculum. BTB has also been recognized by ASEE with the Chester Carlson Award (2007) and with the IEEE Educational Activities Board Vice-President Recognition Award (2008).