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Invention may change monitoring of premature babies

John Rogers, eminent materials scientist and engineer, professor and entrepreneur, sits in his office tucked into a corner of Northwestern University's engineering school, a little stack of petri dishes within reach of his right hand.

In each dish is a wafer-thin slice of the future: A flexible, lollipop-shaped device not much thicker than a piece of tape can be implanted in the body to provide electrical stimulation to nerves — and then dissolve, electronics and all, once it's no longer needed. A small translucent patch can stick to the arm of a kidney or stroke patient or an athlete to harvest and chemically analyze sweat, then transmit the data to a smartphone. A soft, stretchy bandage will, one day soon, monitor vital signs in preterm babies — no wires necessary.

Rogers holds each one up to the light with a characteristic squint, gently replacing them in their dishes. This is his work, each device representing years of labor in the lab, endless iterations, multiple collaborations, and clinical testing all driven by a central idea.

“John's core statement,” said Tony Banks, research physicist and Rogers' second-in-command in the research group as well as a close friend, “is that he wants to change the world. That's kind of his thing.”

Rogers and his research partners will publish a paper in the journal Science, detailing their work on the new, Band-Aid-like monitor for babies in neonatal intensive care units, or NICUs. The monitors will transform the landscape of NICU care, doing away with the wires and cords attached to the tiny patients, replacing them with tiny electronics that bend and stretch and delicately attach to fragile skin. Eventually, the technology is likely to change the face of premature baby care in countries around the globe — even poor countries. Which is why, when Banks said changing the world has always been Rogers' plan, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

The NICU is a harrowing world. Typical patients weigh just a few pounds, have delicate, injury-prone skin that is 60 percent thinner than the skin of full-term babies, and their hearts may slow or their lungs fail at any moment. Simple infections pose enormous risks, and a baby's health can rapidly slip into dangerous territory. “The NICU is not exactly an open, inviting environment for new technology insertion,” said Rogers. “You wouldn't want to do anything to harm these babies — that's the terrifying aspect of it.”

Yet, current monitoring systems are imperfect, from the cascade of wires that hinders breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact from mothers to the lack of a noninvasive solution to continuously monitor blood pressure. “I knew firsthand how much of a problem these wires were,” said Dr. Amy Paller, chairman of dermatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. “But how necessary they were. We knew this project would take years of research and testing, but it would really be the prototype of something that is just transformational in terms of how babies in neonatal care units are cared for.”

Said Dr. Aaron Hamvas, the chief of neonatology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine: “One day we'll have babies with just a little patch on them.”

After a year of NICU testing at Lurie Children's Hospital, Rogers and his team are in the final stages of proving that the new monitors deliver the same quality of data as current monitors. It has been a long road. But the payoff, Rogers points out, is worth it. “There's just something about trying to develop technology that can have an impact on those patients. There's just something so rewarding about it.”

Later this spring, they will begin their next phase. Thanks to a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, tens of thousands of the new monitors will eventually be deployed on newborns and mothers in Africa and Asia, with the first wave scheduled for Zambia, starting in April.

Bringing his work to the patient population that needs it is a key for Rogers. “These things are not doing much good sitting around in our labs. It's great to get these on 100 babies, but that would be negligible in terms of impact when you think about the global scale of opportunities.” In the developing world, Rogers' technology can provide monitoring of babies who might otherwise have none, at a much lower cost and ease of operation than current technologies.

“It's fantastic,” said Hamvas. “And eventually, from a very broad, grand perspective, you can see putting one of these monitors on a baby in Africa, and you're sitting here in Chicago helping to monitor that baby and letting people there know if the baby's getting into trouble.”

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