Researchers at Nottingham University have been awarded £112,000 to develop a prototype of a new electronic monitor that could potentially improve the treatment given to hundreds of babies every year.
The tiny device, being developed by Dr Barrie Hayes-Gill, Dr John Crowe and Mark Grubb in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, in collaboration with neonatologists Prof Neil Marlow and Dr Don Sharkey in the Academic Division of Child Health, uses a small optical probe that measures changes in blood flow under the skin of the baby’s forehead to determine the pulse.
The new device will be aimed primarily at helping doctors and midwives to treat the most vulnerable babies, those born very prematurely, whose specialist care requirements make monitoring of their heart rate particularly challenging.
The funding from Action Medical Research will also allow the researchers to put the device through its paces in patient trials to assess how it performs in a clinical setting on neonatal units and delivery suites.
One in 10 babies need some form of resuscitation at birth to get them breathing on their own and to ensure that their heart is beating quickly enough to pump oxygen around their bodies to their vital organs. Any delay can put the infant at risk of developing permanent brain damage or, in the most serious cases, death.
The heart rate of a newborn baby is one of the best indicators of how successful immediate care is going to be. To monitor progress, the doctor or midwife has to keep stopping at intervals to listen to the baby’s heart with a stethoscope and calculate its rate, potentially losing crucial seconds and interrupting the important resuscitation process.
Almost 10 per cent of all newborn babies require some form of resuscitation at birth. In the UK alone that accounts for some 70,000 babies of which a large proportion are those born prematurely, needing specialist care from the moment they are delivered. Usually, they are put straight into an insulating bag with only the head exposed to keep them warm but this makes it difficult to attach monitoring devices.
‘The key advantage of our device is that it provides continuous, hands-free, heart-rate monitoring,’ said Grubb.
The device is to go through a three-phase patient trial. In the first phase, it will be used on babies on the neonatal intensive care unit who have made a full recovery, shortly before they go home, and in the second it will be tested on full-term babies delivered by elective caesarean. The third phase will test the device on babies in the delivery suite born prematurely at between 24 to 36 weeks.