Mobile phone foetal monitor being developed in Abu Dhabi
It's a device so small that it could fit in the palm of your hand, yet in just a few years it could be saving thousands of lives in developing countries.
At Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, a team led by Dr Ahsan Khandoker, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is developing a low-cost foetal monitoring device aimed at mothers who have limited access to health clinics. The team has just received a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop the phonogram, which works when it is attached to a basic mobile phone. The grant is worth US$100,000 (Dh367,000) for the first year and, if sufficient progress is made, a further $1 million may be available.
In the developed world, regular ultrasound scans are a routine part of pregnancy.
"The common procedure is to check the foetus using Doppler [ultrasound scanning]," says Khandoker. "This requires skilled operators and also it is an expensive procedure." Foetuses can also be monitored with electrocardiograms, which are costly, he says.
Khandoker and his team are developing a different kind of advice. "It is a non-invasive device which doesn't require skilled operators," he says. "Every mother can operate it using her own mobile phone - the kind of mobile phone she will use to talk to her friends and family - to determine the well-being of the foetus. The purpose is to make a low-cost device available to poor mothers in developing countries."
The device will use the phone's sound system to measure signals from the mother's abdomen and determine the foetal heart rate, breathing rate and movements. It will then alert the mother if there is a problem with the baby and tell her if she needs further obstetric assessment or intervention.
"All they need to do is to upload the driver to their mobile phone and then hook the sensor to the sound card," says Khandoker, "and then they can monitor the baby's condition." This can be done with even a fairly basic mobile phone and will be particularly useful to mothers who do not live near medical care.
"In rural areas in many countries, mothers have very little access to clinics and hospitals," says Khandoker. "In some African and Asian countries there are not many clinics but they do have mobile phones."
Khandoker's interest in this field stems from his own background. "I love building tools aimed at improving public health for entire communities. I am a trained electrical engineer. My interest is in biomedical engineering, building new diagnostic tools. I particularly focus on the underprivileged communities; very few people think of those people.
"I like the motto of the Gates Foundation: 'All lives have equal value.' Poor people have rights but we always help the rich people, not the poor people."
Born in Bangladesh, Khandoker has seen for himself the suffering in many poor parts of the world.
"I have travelled in many developing countries - Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Africa," he says, "and I have seen in my own eyes how deplorable the conditions can be. Mothers are dying from undetected stillbirths, which is really tragic."
But it is not only the poor who may benefit from the phonogram. Because of the cost and the ease of use, Khandoker thinks pregnant women in developed countries will be keen to have the device for personal use: "If you have the device you can check the baby's health at any time. Psychologically it will also help the mother who is very concerned about their baby's health. It will help reduce false alarms. If the mother feels the baby is not doing well she might go to the hospital unnecessarily because she fears that there may be something wrong. That would help reduce the financial burden on hospitals."
The initial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will last one-and-a-half years, and Khandoker hopes that a workable prototype will be ready by the end of next year; in the second phase the device will be tested in developing countries.
The team's long-term goal is to make the device available worldwide, which will mean attracting a commercial manufacturer.
"Most commercial manufacturers are not very interested because there is not much profit," says Khadoker. "It's one of the important aspects that we need to work on in the next year.
"If we can get the device out to every health care worker in the world, I don't think it's too much to say that many hundreds of thousands of foetal deaths could be prevented."