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Gates Award to Fund Tattoo-Like Pregnancy Monitor Device

Pregnancy health (CDC)

(U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a Grand Challenges Explorations grant for development of an electronic device similar to a tattoo that can continuously monitor the progress of a pregnancy. The award goes to University of California-San Diego bioengineering professor Todd Coleman and materials science and engineering professor John Rogers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The project, “Epidermal Electronics for Continuous Pregnancy Monitoring,” was one of some 100 initiatives funded in round 8 of the Grand Challenges Explorations series. The program seeks unorthodox ideas to overcome persistent public health challenges. The selection process, also unorthodox, begins with an application consisting of a simple, two-page online form. The next round of funding applications closes on 15 May.

Coleman and Rogers propose building a flexible tattoo-like device that monitors uterine contractions, fetal heart rate and oxygen, and maternal heart rate and body temperature. The device would be non-invasive, wireless and continuously monitor the pregnancies of at-risk patients. The proposed system makes use of advances in flexible electronics pioneered at the Rogers lab, devised as a patch consisting of tiny circuits, sensors, and wireless transmitters that sticks to the skin like a temporary tattoo, stretching and flexing with the skin.

Coleman’s lab at UC San Diego will apply its expertise in signal processing and neuroscience to design sensors and wireless radios that can acquire, process, and transmit bodily signals during natural skin deformations. The first phase of the project will recruit colleagues at UC San Diego’s Health System, to monitor patients in labor and determine how well the device’s sensors perform compared to standard clinical technology.

Coleman sees the most potential for the system in developing countries where access to health care is limited but mobile phone use is high. “Our goal is for the electronic tattoo to transmit bodily signals to the mobile phone,” says Coleman, “which then uploads to the cloud, so that a doctor thousands of miles away can securely access the information and provide clinically actionable advice.”

MC10, a company co-founded by Rogers, is expected to work with the team to develop, test, and deploy the technology among underserved populations.

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