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Wireless Sensors Monitor Newborns in ICUs

Amy Paller and Taschana Taylor

Researcher Amy Paller and Taschana Taylor, holding her daughter Grace, who took part in the pilot test of wireless newborn ICU sensors. (Northwestern University)

1 Mar. 2019. An international team developed two wireless sensors that safely monitor the vital signs of newborn infants in intensive care units, replacing the multiple wired devices used today. Researchers from the U.S., China, and South Korea describe the system in today’s issue of the journal Science.

The team led by physicians, materials scientists, and engineers at Northwestern University in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois is seeking better methods for tracking the vital signs of perhaps the most vulnerable patients in a medical center, newborn babies in intensive care units, or ICUs. Current monitoring devices often use rigid sensors applied to the often fragile skin of preterm and diseased infants. Other sensors require connecting to weak blood vessels, which means invasive probes under the skin. And the vast majority of these systems are hard-wired to external devices for monitoring by clinicians.

One consequence of placing a newborn in this environment is the child gets little physical holding and hugging from parents, depriving the infant of the parental support needed for early development. “We wanted to eliminate the rat’s nest of wires and aggressive adhesives associated with existing hardware systems,” says Northwestern materials science and engineering professor John Rogers in a university statement, “and replace them with something safer, more patient-centric and more compatible with parent-child interaction.” Rogers, along with Northwestern dermatology and pediatrics faculty Amy Paller and Shuai Xu, led the team.

The researchers devised two multi-functional sensors placed on the baby’s skin, sending data wirelessly to nearby receivers, to replace the multiple hard-wired devices. One sensor, attached to the infant’s chest, records electrocardiogram or ECG data, capturing heart and respiratory rates. The second sensor, attached to the baby’s foot, uses infrared light to capture photoplethysmogram or PPG data including blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and body temperature. Data are collected with electrodes and sent with a tiny near field communication antenna woven into a soft wire mesh, separated from the skin by a microfluidics layer, and wrapped in soft silicone rubber-like plastic.

A key goal of the sensors is to replace the heavy adhesives often used to attach current sensors on the babies’ skin. The researchers found in tests on life-size mannequins, then in a pilot test with 21 infants, the sensors remain attached largely on their own. Their light weight and ultra-thin soft plastics used to wrap the sensors enable intermolecular chemical bonding known as van der Waals forces to stay in place on the babies’ skin without extra adhesive.

The researchers pilot tested the sensors first on 3 healthy newborns and then 18 preterm infants in neonatal intensive care units at 2 hospitals in Chicago. The clinical trial is continuing, eventually enrolling 110 participants. The results show the soft wireless sensors capture vital signs data from the children comparable to the data offered by today’s conventional monitoring devices, with much less potential for damage to the infants. The authors estimate the sensors can be produced at commercial scale for less than $20.00 each, and can be reused after standard steam sterilization procedures.

The benefits to the children extend beyond the ICU. “We know that skin-to-skin contact is so important for newborns, especially those who are sick or premature,” notes Paller. ” Yet, when you have wires everywhere and the baby is tethered to a bed, it’s really hard to make skin-to-skin contact.”

Taschana Taylor, mother of a baby taking part in the trial agrees. “Trying to feed her, change her, swaddle her, hold her and move around with her with the wires was difficult,” says Taylor. “If she didn’t have wires on her, we could go for a walk around the room together. It would have made the entire experience more enjoyable.”

Northwestern University and University of Illinois applied for a patent on the technology, with several of the authors listed as inventors. Rogers, Xu, and first author Ha Uk Chung, a graduate student at University of Illinois, own stock in a company commercializing the technology.

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