Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, US, have developed a miniaturised, wireless oxygen sensor to monitor blood oxygen levels in infants.

In contrast to the existing systems, this wearable device with the sensor is stretchable, wireless, inexpensive and flexible enough to allow babies to leave the hospital and be safely monitored.

This miniature oxygen monitor can measure the blood gases diffusing through the skin and this data is reported wirelessly.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute integrated circuits and systems lab director Ulkuhan Guler said: “Extended stays in the hospital are costly and can be a strain on families. And studies have shown that babies’ health improves when they are with their families. Our goal with this affordable, mobile device is to give doctors more flexibility in monitoring their patients both in the hospital and at home.”

The research team, led by Guler, is mainly focused on unlinking the wired sensors from hospitalised sick infants so that they can be more easily and frequently examined.

Usually, transcutaneous measurement of oxygen levels requires a system of a nearly 5lb monitor and wired sensors connected to the monitor.

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Unlike the current system, Guler’s miniature wearable sensor, which is the size of a band-aid, uses wireless power transfer and linked to the internet wirelessly. In case babies begin to experience a drop in oxygen levels, the medical personnel or family members get notified through an alarm beep or smartphone app.

This wireless wearable device can measure the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2), which is a more precise indicator of respiratory health compared to only oxygen measurement.

Measuring PO2 level through a wearable noninvasive device gives results just as accurate as a blood test.

The wearable oxygen monitor is expected to not only be useful for infants, but also for adults, especially people suffering from severe asthma and seniors with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

In the next phase of the research project, Guler will modify the wearable device so that it can be used by adults. The team will also create a related smartphone app.

University of Massachusetts Medical School associate professor Lawrence Rhein said: “The concept of the technology is that if we have more accessible data for a person of any age, we’ll be able to better take care of these patients. The idea of noninvasive, untethered, accessible data collection opens up a whole new world of care.”

Guler and her research team are creating a chip that will work inside the wearable device.

The chip can activate the optical sensors, capture analogue signals, handle power management and contain the required circuitry.

The research team has customised the design of individual circuits such as signal-capturing circuits.

Under the next phase of the research project, the team intends to equip the chip with more circuitries so that analogue signals can be captured, digitised and transmitted.

Through an interdepartmental collaboration, the research team is creating miniaturised thin and flexible sensors for the wearable devices so that they are secure even when babies are moving.