Mizzou Engineer Designs NICU Automation for Oxygen Levels to Spare Babies from Health Complications

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer of Science and Technology, in collaboration with the University of Missouri Health Care

    A clinical trial in Missouri is testing an innovation from the University of Missouri College of Engineering that’s designed to spare premature babies from possible devastating health problems related to oxygen levels received in neonatal intensive care units. Providing too much oxygen for certain premature babies can cause blindness, and too little oxygen can cause brain damage and other negative health effects.

    Currently, the small and personalized adjustments — to either raise or lower the level of oxygen provided — must be made by hand under the careful attention of nurses and respiratory therapists. Now, a clinical trial will test the new device designed by Roger Fales, PhD, an associate professor and associate dean in the College of Engineering, that could make those needed adjustments for premature babies in a NICU — automatically. Fales compares it to the way cruise control works in a vehicle.

    “On the automobile, cruise control automates the process of keeping the speed constant in your vehicle, even as the vehicle goes up and down hills,” Fales said. “In the case that we have here, we’re automating the process of adjusting the amount of oxygen that the baby receives to keep their blood oxygen saturation constant. The more consistently we can control the oxygen, the better the baby is, and the faster the baby is going to be able to develop. Plus, there will be fewer events that are detrimental to the baby’s health.”

    Currently, nurses must manually turn a knob to raise or lower the level of oxygen in response to alarms coming from a vital signs monitor. This device would automate that process by using a microcontroller, or small computer chip, that can receive the alert signal coming from the monitor and then automatically adjust the amount of oxygen to the changing needs of the infant. The goal of the device is to improve health outcomes for premature babies by stabilizing their blood oxygen levels.

    Approximately 60 premature babies will be enrolled in the trial — half at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the others at Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, Florida. Fales said the project will also create opportunities for engineering students at MU to have a hands-on learning experience, Fales said.

    “Not every student in engineering gets to go to a hospital and see something in action,” Fales said. “Having the experience and opportunity to develop a medical device in our lab on the University of Missouri campus, and then take that device over to the NICU and work directly with the neonatologist, is going to set us up for not only producing research results, but also educating the students that are involved. They’re a big part of this project, and gaining this kind of experience is going to allow them to work within medical-specific areas within engineering and also demonstrate and build skills for working in multiple disciplinary teams that can be useful anywhere within engineering — or outside of engineering as well.”