“Preterm labor is related to high morbidity, high mortality, and significant cost,” said Rubin Pillay, MD, PhD, assistant dean for global health innovation at the UAB School of Medicine. “If we can develop a device that can predict when a patient is at risk for preterm labor, we can prevent it or act on it before it becomes an emergency. The reality now is that very often it’s too late. When the patient presents in the hospital, you can’t do anything about it.”

Fig. 1 – When it detects the start of preterm labor, the device will transmit an alert to the patient’s smartphone through Bluetooth, giving the mother a chance to reach medical care well before birth.

Since smartphones are practically ubiquitous, the prices on electronic sensors, like the ones that let a phone count your steps, have become extremely affordable. Pillay and a team of researchers at the university are working to harness these cheap sensors to help save the lives of some of the 15 million preterm babies born each year worldwide. Preterm birth, defined as a baby born before 37 weeks gestation, is the leading cause of death in children aged 5 and under.

Using a $2.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s All Children Thriving initiative, the researchers are applying sensors, embedded in a silicone ring, and synced to a nearby phone by WiFi, that can be fitted into the cervix of high-risk patients in a simple procedure. The stretch sensor can detect the slightest increase in diameter, and send a warning to the patient’s mobile phone. That early warning would give patients time to get to the hospital well before birth, Pillay explains. The silicone ring will also be infused with progesterone, a drug that reduces contractions and the opening of the cervix.

Another use for the sensor technology is a patch, about the size of ECG patches that can be attached to a pregnant woman’s abdomen to measure uterine contractions and fetal heart rate. These two data points are crucial to monitoring a baby’s health in the womb. “The patch will sync to a doctor’s smartphone, and provide instant information,” Pillay explained. “It will also have an analytic component, so it can predict which patients will run into problems, and alert the doctor.” (See Figure 1)

The next step would be to combine data from the ring and patch into “one device to measure cervical dilation, fetal heart rate and contractions,” Pillay said. “A physician can have these on all her high-risk patients and monitor them from anywhere with a smartphone.”

For more information, visit www.uab.edu .