Highly sensitive Sneezometer picks up early signs of asthma

The Sneezometer flowmeter is around the size of a fist

Devices that measure lung capacity and fluctuations in airflow (called spirometers), are a common tool for picking up on symptoms of asthma and other respiratory conditions. But using one typically involves repeated deep breaths and the devices themselves aren't so portable, restricting where and when they can be used. Researchers have now 3D printed a spirometer that is not only more mobile, but is claimed to be much more sensitive than available devices with the ability to detect variations in airflow from a single sneeze.

Developed by a team at the University of Surrey, the so-called Sneezometer is around the size of a human fist. The developers say that it is sensitive enough to detect tiny fluctuations in a person's breath, symptoms that may be indicative of a disease. The device is the handiwork of experts working in the university's Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research group, who applied their knowledge from wind-tunnel experiments to fashion what has turned out to be a new kind of medical diagnostics tool.

"As specialists in experimental aerodynamics, we used the same expertise and technology that we use in the development of wind-tunnel measurement systems," Dr David Birch explains to Gizmag. "These include both high-resolution 3-D printing and some of the newest sensing technology brought over from the aerospace sector."

By 3D printing the body of the Sneezometer around the electronics, the team was able to integrate all of the internal pipes and channels into the plastic, which in turn allowed them to keep it compact. Some physicians caught wind of Birch's highly sensitive flowmeter, and in putting it to the test with respiratory diseases in mind they discovered that it was capable of measuring things that no other device can.

"Because this is an entirely new way of examining the way we breathe and how our lungs work, our partners in the medical profession are still exploring the diagnostic capabilities," says Birch. "As an example, our early test results indicate that the Sneezometer can even be used to non-intrusively assess some aspects of heart function: the heart beating and blood flow through the vessels cause micro-changes in the rate of air flow into and out of the lungs, which our instrument is detecting."

The Sneezometer, which joins previous attempts at cheaper, more portable spirometers such as SpiroMart and SandPiper, continues to be tested at hospitals around London, with physicians hopeful it could come to be used in scenarios ranging from neonatal diagnostics to animal care. Its developers also imagine its low-cost and portability could be of particular use in developing regions, where it could detect respiratory diseases in their early stages. They believe the device could be in clinical service by 2018.

You can hear from Dr Birch in the video below.

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