Hopkins researchers win $100K grant from Gates Foundation for their lifesaving infant monitoring device

Neonatal Monitoring device lets mothers track their newborn's vital signs, correspond with remote health care workers

A young woman learns to use a cell phone app connected to a manikin doll

Image caption: During a 2016 research trip to Africa, Johns Hopkins graduate student Mohit Singhalla helps a Ugandan mother try out an early version of the NeMo system.

Image credit: Polly Ma

Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering faculty and graduate students, global health experts, and technology specialists will receive $100,000 to further develop a phone-based system enabling mothers in remote villages to spot serious health problems during newborn babies' critical first week.

The university's NeMo team, short for Neonatal Monitoring, was named today as one of 51 new Grand Challenges Explorations winners in an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the award is to support innovative global health and development research projects. The $100,000 grant will allow the Johns Hopkins team to develop and test its low-cost sensors and accompanying cell phone application. If these steps are judged to be successful, the project could qualify for a follow-up grant of up to $1 million.

The NeMo prototype has been tested and improved over the past two years by CBID graduate student teams and faculty. The principal investigator of the Johns Hopkins NeMo team project is Soumyadipta Acharya, the graduate program director of the university's Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design.

Two adults show two children a medical manikin

Image credit: Polly Ma

Acharya said the student teams have studied the incidence of newborns' deaths in developing regions where advanced medical care is not always readily available. The students traveled to Bangladesh, Kenya, and Uganda to see how people in rural villages often must rely on community health workers with limited medical training and many patients to see.

The students learned that 2.7 million newborns die annually, and 75 percent of these deaths occur during the first week of life. In developing regions, if a community health worker does not visit when a newborn baby shows symptoms of a serious health problem, the illness may be overlooked.

"Mothers and other family members often fail to recognize the early signs of a serious illness in time," Acharya said. "But if you see the signs of illness early enough, the child could be referred to a district hospital for prompt treatment."

The team members decided to empower the babies' mothers, who are with the newborns most often, by providing the moms with a simple device to assess the baby's health: a cell phone with testing attachments, along with software that prompts the mothers to answer key yes-or-no questions. The attachment is a small belt that is fastened across the newborn's abdomen, along with a low-cost paper sensor strip.

The sensor works with the cell phone, and delivers data about the newborn's temperature and breathing. The yes-or-no questions ask about other danger signs that the child might be displaying, such as convulsions, chest indrawing, and reduced breast feeding. A positive test triggers a direct referral to the community health worker.

The Johns Hopkins graduate students who are part of this school year's NeMo team are Christine Diaz, Katie Solley, Yueheng Dou, Benjamin Ostrander, and Ailon Haileyesus. Recent graduates of the CBID program—Mohit Singhala, Andrew Jann, Rachel An, Polly Ma, and Matthew Lerner—developed and tested preliminary versions of this technology platform in Uganda and at the Johns Hopkins Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Faculty team members include the School of Medicine's Azadeh Farzin and Christopher Golden, both assistant professors of pediatrics-neonatology, and Alain B. Labrique, associate professor of global disease epidemiology and control at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Engineers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will provide technology development assistance. Makerere University in Uganda is the field collaborator on this project.

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