Wireless sensors to track premature baby health in the developing world
There is a large disparity between the survival rates of prematurely born babies in the developing world and those in the developed world, but scientists at Northwestern University are working on ways to bridge the gap. This has led to the development of new kind of wireless sensor that can be worn on the skin to track vital signs both in babies and pregnant mothers, with the technology to be tested on thousands of subjects over the next couple of years.
The research builds on earlier work from the same scientists who last year demonstrated a new type of soft, flexible sensor designed to replace the wired systems that monitor babies in intensive care. Typically, these involve electrodes placed on the baby’s skin to track blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, heartbeat and other vital signs, but the team found they could obtain data with the same accuracy using wireless versions instead.
These sensors work in pairs, with one placed on the foot and one on the chest. They have now been improved to the point that they exceed the performance of existing wired solutions, with the added ability to monitor crying, movement, body orientation and heart sounds, while the sensors are also much softer on babies’ sensitive skins than wired versions. The team has added thin batteries as a power source, with the data transmitted through radio waves to a phone, tablet or nurse station display.
“We couldn’t just drop our existing technology into other countries and different settings without taking their specific needs into account,” says John A. Rogers, who led the research. “We wanted to understand the broader landscape and to develop a technology that is easy-to-use, helpful and practical. We knew that we needed to build the foundations for highly robust, reusable devices, applicable in regions with limited facilities and resources.”
The technology can also be used to closely monitor vital signs among pregnant women during labor to ensure safe delivery and lessen the risk of maternal mortality. Already the team has tested the sensors on 42 babies in Kenya, with the performance validated alongside gold-standard monitoring systems. The researchers are now preparing for large-scale trials involving tests on 15,000 pregnant women and 500 newborn babies by mid-2021.
“The new technology represents a monumental advance in neonatal and pediatric care,” says Dr. Debra Weese-Mayer, who co-led the study with Rogers. “This is not strictly about making critical care systems ‘wireless’, this is about thinking expansively about what non-traditional variables we need to incorporate to more fully study health and ensure stability.”
The researchers are working towards gaining FDA approval for the technology later this year, with hopes of deploying the sensors in US hospitals within 12 months. They are also working to integrate artificial intelligence into the system to make the data processing more efficient.
The research was published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Source: Northwestern University