When an anesthetized obese patient is lying on their back on an operating table, the weight of their abdominal fat can make it difficult for them to breathe. It can also press down on and displace their organs, making certain procedures more challenging. Mehdi Razavi, director of electrophysiology clinical research at the Texas Heart Institute, had encountered such problems first-hand, with patients of his own. He decided to turn to Houston’s Rice University, to see if its students could come up with a solution. In response, a group of bioengineering seniors created something called the R-Aide, which uses vacuum-powered suction cups to lift up patients’ bellies.

The prototype, which was built for under US$200, utilizes suction cups taken from breast pumps – they are mounted on a horizontal steel beam and have very flexible rubber rims, that provide a good seal by conforming to the contours of the skin. These pumps are all hooked up to an electric vacuum pump, which in the case of an operating room could be the existing vacuum system.

Once the cups have sucked onto the patient’s abdomen, the beam is lifted up, and the two ends of it are each set into hooks on vertical posts located on either side of the table. The posts have hooks located at various heights, to accommodate patients of different sizes. This having been done, the abdominal fat is left hanging from the suction cups, instead of bearing down on the patient’s diaphragm.

To test the system, volunteers lay down on a table, with a 40-pound (18-kg) weighted slab of silicone filling in for belly fat. The system easily lifted it up and held its weight. Razavi also had the cups attached directly to his skin, and left there for about an hour. Although some redness resulted, he stated that no bruising occurred.

He has now filed for a patent, and may commercially develop the R-Aide through his medical technology company, Saranas. “The device will be very cheap, and the amount of training required to use it will be nominal,” Razavi said. “And the approval process, the regulatory pathway, is likely to be quite straightforward. I’ve run this by a regulatory specialist, and we believe strongly that it’s going to be an FDA Class 1, which is basically more paperwork than anything else.”

R-Aide wouldn’t be used on patients who were under heavy sedation or undergoing abdominal surgery, but could still prove to be quite useful on upper- or lower-body procedures.

More information is available in the video below.

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