Liquid-based sensor could cheaply monitor sick babies in remote areas

By Laura Lovett

Getting medical attention to sick infants has been a longtime issue in many remote sections of the world. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 21,000 children under the age of five die everyday from treatable diseases, such as diarrhea and malaria. 

But researchers at the University of Suffolk in the UK are working on creating an affordable, wearable sensor that could fit into a baby’s sleeping outfit and help doctors remotely monitor sick children. These researchers recently published a paper on their methods for developing a liquid used in these non-invasive sensors, which is made from an emulsion of graphene, water and oil, which conduct electricity. 

“Using the conducting liquid emulsions we have developed, we will produce cheap, wearable sensors based on graphene,” Alan Dalson, a professor from the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Suffolk, said in a statement. “The devices will be comfortable, non-invasive, and can provide intuitive diagnostics of breathing and heart rate. We will eventually have a suit that the baby can wear which will read out all vital information wirelessly. We hope to see this made available within two to four years.”

The sensor will eventually keep track of babies’ heart and breathing rates and be able to send alerts to remote physicians, the researchers hope. Their device could also be used to help detect sleep apnea. 

The research team decided to focus on creating this new sensor after the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation called for a new affordable digital health solution for babies living in areas without access to medical facilities, according to a statement. Eventually, the team wants to put the new liquid-based sensor on the market as an alternative to the bulky wearables currently available, which often go on a child’s hand or feet and can limit their movement. 

The product could also be used by parents to get updates about their baby’s vitals through their smartphone. 

The researchers have created a prototype and are now talking to commercial sponsors to fund further research so the product can be brought to the market, according to a statement. 

"In the laboratory we have created a sensor that has the potential to drastically improve early detection of life-threatening symptoms such as sleep apnea or cardiac arrhythmia, where constant monitoring with conventional equipment is challenging outside of the hospital environment,” Dalson said. “Of course the ultimate potential is wider than that. Anyone interested in tracking their heart or respiration rates — joggers, for example — may be interested to wear this technology within their exercise gear.”