Car mechanic to the rescue: Invents device to help women give birth

Cross-posted:  Toronto Star    9/28/2013

Written by Jennifer Yang 

The Odon device, a promising new medical invention touted by the World Health Organization, is designed to help mothers suffering from a problematic labour in the developing world.


In the beginning, there was a cork, a wine bottle and an Argentinian car mechanic with a nifty parlour trick. Eight years later, these elements have improbably combined to inspire a promising new medical invention — one that could save millions of lives and is now being touted by the World Health Organization and a Fortune 500 company.

On Friday, the WHO and Becton Dickinson and Company announced their plans to test and manufacture the Odon device, a birthing instrument used to help mothers suffering from a problematic labour.

“Obstructed labour is a major killer of young women and adolescent girls,” WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan said at the World Health Assembly in May, 2012. “If approved, the Odon device will be the first simple new tool for assisted delivery since forceps and vacuum extractors were introduced centuries ago.”

The problem the Odon device hopes to solve is massive: every day, roughly 800 women die from preventable causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the WHO. The vast majority of maternal deaths occur in developing countries and many are caused by prolonged or obstructed labours, which can cause mothers to hemorrhage and babies to asphyxiate.

In 2005, however, these issues were far from Jorge Odon’s mind when he decided to place a bet with a friend — and, inadvertently, set into motion a series of events that would result in the Odon device’s invention.

According to the newspaper La Nacion, the Argentinean auto mechanic bet his friend he could extract a cork from inside an empty bottle — without breaking it

This bar trick has been popularized by countless YouTube videos and was taught to Odon by his employees earlier that day. The secret to getting out the cork is simple: just tilt the bottle, stuff a plastic bag down the neck and blow into the opening. The bag will balloon in the bottle, wrapping the plastic tightly around the cork, and then all you have to do is yank. Voila — the bag and cork pop right out.

Odon won the bet with his friend and went home happy. Then at 4 a.m., he woke up with a start and began nudging his sleeping wife.

“I wake up with the idea and tell her, ‘Marcela, remember the cork stuff? It can make labour easier!’ ” Odon said in a Ted Talks video from 2012. “She turned around and went on sleeping.”

Although Odon’s wife was less than enthused, he could not let go of the idea that came to him in the night. What he didn’t realize at the time, however, was the scale of the problem he suddenly felt inspired to solve. A prolonged second stage of labour (the period between full dilation and birth) is a major killer of women in the developing world — and yet the three tools available for assisting delivery (forceps, vacuum extraction and Caesarean section) often aren’t available in low-resource countries.

Odon thought: What if the same concept behind the cork-in-the-bottle trick could also be used for delivering babies? He patented the idea and presented it to experts at the Center for Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires, including obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Javier Schvartzman.

Initially, Schvartzman thought he was on an episode of Candid Camera.

“Without saying anything, Jorge took from his bag a bottle with a cork,” Schvartzman recalls in a phone interview. “(He) tells me to try to extract the cork from the bottle without breaking it. I looked at him and said, ‘Is this a joke?’ ”

But Odon eventually won Schvartzman over and the obstetrician and his colleagues decided to help him develop a workable prototype. Later, they connected Odon with WHO officials, who entered the obstetrical device into a competition called Saving Lives at Birth, which is partly sponsored by Grand Challenges Canada, a federally-funded non-profit organization.

Odon won — and was given a $250,000 grant to conduct “proof of concept” trials. The ballooning device creates changes in pressure inside the womb and tugs the baby out in a surprisingly gentle, un-corklike way.

The device has now been tested on 30 women recruited in Argentina and early results have been promising, said Dr. Ana Pilar Betran with the WHO’s department of reproductive health and research. Plans are now underway to test the device on 100 more women, she said.

If all goes well, the Odon device could be on the market in two or three years. There is also every expectation the device will be affordable for the women and children who need it most, said Dr. Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada.

Becton Dickinson “is a player that’s shown that it can get medical devices widely distributed at an affordable cost in the developing world,” he said.

And in developing countries, the need for a cheap, safe and easy-to-use birth assistant tool is huge, said Sam Jennings, a midwife with Médecins Sans Frontières who has seen firsthand the tragedy that can come from a prolonged or obstructed labour.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Jennings used to work, she saw mothers stuck in labour for “hours, if not days.” Often, this resulted in the baby dying and the mother developing a hole known as a fistula, which causes permanent incontinence.

For Jennings, a cheap and easy-to-use device like the Odon could be a gamechanger for “millions of moms and babies around the world.”

“Any invention like this promises to save lives,” Jennings says. “And we have to put resources into investigating that.”

With files from Oakland Ross