ABU DHABI // One hundred pregnant women could soon be testing a unique home foetal heart monitoring device.
It is hoped the low-cost gadget could help those in developing countries check their babies’ health from home.
The trial is part of a project by Khalifa University, in collaboration with the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Paediatric Surgical Innovation at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington DC.
Dr Ahsan Khandoker, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the university, is working with the institute to create the device.
Stillbirths and infant deaths are a major problem in developing countries, said Dr Khandoker, from Bangladesh. While most of them can be attributed to the lack of advanced maternal care, many complications can be avoided through early intervention.
“This way if something goes wrong with the foetus, if it is not getting enough oxygen, for example, then doctors can immediately decide on the necessary intervention,” he said.
“If you put a microphone on the mother’s abdomen you will hear many sounds, including the mother’s breathing, her heartbeat, the embryonic fluid movement as well as the foetal heart movement.
“The foetal heart movement is a very tiny sound, so we are developing a signal processing technique that will distinguish the foetal heart sound from all other sounds.”
The device uses a driver installed on a mobile phone, and acoustic sensors plugged into the phone’s sound card are placed on the mother’s abdomen.
Researchers are perfecting the technology and hope to have a prototype ready by the end of this year.
A normal foetal heart averages 110 to 180 beats per minute, although it can vary with gestation.
A rate that falls below 100 is cause for concern, Dr Khandoker said.
Another feature detects heart-rate variability. The heart rate of a healthy foetus will typically increase or decrease by 10 beats a minute, Dr Khandoker said.
If it falls below this, it could indicate a problem, most commonly hypoxia, or the lack of oxygen.
“Hypoxia can also damage the foetal brain,” he said. “If the baby doesn’t get enough oxygen for even 10 seconds, it could cause severe neurological damage.”
An incorrect foetal position could also result in a low heart rate.
“There are many explainable reasons but the important thing is the immediate intervention that could save the baby,” Dr Khandoker said. “That is the bottom line.”
The research is being funded by a US$100,000 (Dh367,000) grant from Khalifa University and $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The team hopes for another $1m to begin clinical trials on 500 mothers next year. One hundred of them will be in the UAE.
Eiman Alhmoudi and Noaf Falah Ali Al Wahab, biomedical engineering students at Khalifa University, worked on the project as part of the annual Student Innovators Programme at the Sheikh Zayed Institute.
Ms Alhmoudi, 22, said the biggest challenge was keeping the cost of the sensors low while making the technology sophisticated enough to distinguish the foetal heart sound from all others.
The Emirati said she was proud her country was home to such innovation.
“Most people don’t know what we’re capable of, so to have a professor from one of our universities come up with such a wonderful concept is something to be proud of,” she said.
“Now when you say the UAE, people don’t just associate it with wealth, but also with innovation.”
If successful, the driver would be available to download for free from the internet and the sensors would cost no more than $2.
Dr Mary Teresa Donofrio, director of the foetal heart programme at the centre in Washington, and Dr Anita Krishnan, a paediatric cardiologist, said problems that could be avoided using this technology included early signs of treatable abnormalities in foetal rhythm, early signs of foetal distress, and fetuses with intrauterine growth restrictions or placenta problems.
The direct benefit to the mother, however, is still unknown.
Doctors said there may not be any, although if a slow foetal heart rate was detected, this could point to the mother either having an autoimmune disease or a heart-rhythm problem.
While other foetal heart monitors exist, most cost several hundred dollars, are complicated to use and are typically used in a clinical setting, said Dr Keven Cleary, technical director of the bioengineering initiative at the Sheikh Zayed Institute.
“Foetal heart rate is a good overall indicator of foetal wellbeing,” he said. “Not only would this make the information more accessible to mothers in low-income countries, but also empower them to take action when it’s necessary.”