By Anya Pogharian, as told to Samuel Anderson
For a high school science project, Anya Pogharian created an artificial kidney. But after volunteering at a hospital, the Montreal-based 18-year-old turned her sights on inventing a cheap and portable dialysis machine, making it accessible to people in developing countries. She’s still too young for med school, but she just might transform health care. Here’s how.
I’d never heard of dialysis when I started volunteering at a hospital, but I became interested after working the dialysis floor. The people would come after work for three-hour treatments [to filter toxins from their blood after kidney failure]. While they were hooked up to the machines, we’d play bingo.
I learned about the huge need for dialysis in developing countries. A typical dialysis machine costs about $30,000 and requires ultrapure water, which is difficult to come by. That’s why I decided to invent my own portable, affordable dialysis machine.
I’d never invented anything, so to learn more I set up an appointment with a nephrologist. Even the doctors operating the machines don’t necessarily know the mechanics. But by reading owner's manuals online, I learned how they worked. I went out and bought the essential parts: a pump, the pressure and temperature sensors, and a filter. Then, I created a circuit, an air bubble detector, and a microcontroller. [It cost about $600, one-fiftieth the cost of the dialysis machines on the market.] I tested it with water and food coloring. After 300 hours of work, I showed the first prototype at my school. It took the bronze prize at the Canada Wide Science Fair.
After tweaking the design that summer, I was ready to run real blood through it. I took it to a blood donation organization and hooked it up to a four-liter bag. The sample was full of potassium and other impurities because it had been stored for six days, but we added even more. We wanted to see what the machine could do. After an hour all the impurities were reduced and the potassium was gone. We could have stopped after 20 minutes.
I’ve heard from people in India, Pakistan, and South America who want to purchase my machine. It isn’t ready for the public yet, but my work isn’t slowing. Within the year there has to be something that people in developing countries can afford. The need is non-negotiable.