Johns Hopkins' Ebola suit aims for 2016 debut

Thanks to Hopkins and DuPont, health care workers will have new suits to protect them from the Ebola virus.

A suit developed by a group from the Johns Hopkins University will soon be available to protect people on the front lines of the Ebola crisis.

Johns Hopkins and DuPont have signed license and collaboration agreements that will allow for the mass production of the garment. DuPont, which is manufacturing the Ebola suits, plans to have the first of them in West Africa by this spring. The news comes less than a year after the university began a project to design the life-saving suits in response to a U.S. Agency for International Development initiative.

"We're very excited that there is a clear path to a product based on our designs," said Youseph Yazdi, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, who organized and oversaw the project. "It was really driven by our passion to have an impact and to help people."

The Ebola virus has killed more than 5,000 people in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. There have been more than a dozen cases in other parts of the world, including the United States, where the infection of two Texas nurses highlighted the difficulties medical personnel face in using protective gear.

Since the virus is transmitted through body fluids, health care providers wear protective suits, but current versions have limitations. The suits can overheat quickly — especially in high temperatures like those in West Africa — and exposure to the virus can occur if they're not carefully put on and taken off.

About 60 people at Hopkins participated in the design challenge to develop a better protective garment last October and were divided into three groups, each tackling a different aspect of the suit.

Gown designer Jill Andrews was one of the challenge participants who helped develop the garment.

"Aside from having children, it's the most important thing I've ever done," said Andrews, who found out about the project by luck. A friend at Johns Hopkins forwarded her a "closed email" initially intended to seek interest among students and staff. Andrews, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who has run her custom gown studio for five years, decided to apply anyway.

Yazdi is glad she did.

"She was a rock star," he said. "Everyone needed help sewing things and making them more accessible. She contributed a lot of ideas and practical advice."

Andrews said she learned of the latest developments Tuesday when she was tagged on a Facebook post announcing the news.

"I feel very humbled to be part of a project that is going to change the way that health care workers protect themselves," she said. "That it is such a progressive suit that will allow them to stay in the suit longer. It will help with their comfort. And it will help save lives."

The prototype garment was developed by the Hopkins center with input from global health partner Jhpiego, a Hopkins affiliate. Incorporating some elements from the Hopkins prototype, the garment design from DuPont will feature a rear zipper and a "cocoon-style" removal process that requires far fewer steps to reduce risk of exposure. The DuPont garment will also include an integrated hood with a large clear visor.

Andrews said she's far from done with the project. The center has asked her to create four more prototypes that can be used by other institutions, she said.

"I think they want one next week," she said.

The next batch of prototypes will feature many of the same elements as the prototype that will debut in the spring, according to Andrews.

"They will have two modifications," she said. "Other than that, it's the same thing."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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