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NASA Technology Applied to Create New Fetal Heart Monitor

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WebMD Health News

March 7, 2000 (Atlanta) -- NASA technology originally used to assess airflow over airplane wings has been used successfully in clinical trials to measure fetal heart rates in high-risk pregnancies. The new monitor is noninvasive and, compared with older monitors, more affordable, more portable, and easier to use, according to the NASA researchers.

Researchers at NASA worked with Veatronics Inc., in Charlotte, N.C., to convert the aerospace application into a medical device. The company has NASA's permission to license one or more commercial products based on this technology.

Allan Zuckerwar, DrSci, co-inventor of the device, tells WebMD that it is an electronic stethoscope with seven sensors made of a very flexible polymer film. The sensors are attached to a belt which the pregnant woman wraps around her abdomen. The monitor offers continuous surveillance, and the information is transmitted over the Internet to another site where there is a physician or a nurse waiting to examine the results. The monitor has software that interprets the heart rate and sets off an alarm when it is too fast or too slow.

The technology has several advantages, according to Zuckerwar, a senior research engineer at Langley Research Center, NASA, in Hampton, Va. One advantage is that, because it is flexible, it more easily conforms to the test surface than do heart monitors made of ceramics. Another advantage of the new monitor is its sensitivity. Because it has seven sensors, the new monitor can select the sensor that generates the best signal. This is helpful because the fetal heart tone is very local. "It's so localized that you might detect the tone on one sensor but not on the adjacent sensor," says Zuckerwar.

Other advantages of the new heart monitor are its ease of use and its portability, says Zuckerwar. "[In comparison,] the ultrasonic equipment [used in older monitors] is too sophisticated and isn't very easily portable, and the mother would have to be supervised very closely," he says. "Our instrument is easy to use. ... The idea is for mom to be able to perform the test on a daily basis at a time when it's convenient for her ... instead of [coming into the clinic] twice weekly. The frequency of surveillance is greatly increased from semiweekly to daily."

"It's a technology that we are bringing to the patient as opposed to the patient having to come to the technology," says Kevin Gomez, MD, who has conducted NASA-sponsored clinical trials at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and continues the trials at Atlanta Perinatal Associates.

"If this [new technology] is more practical or equally practical and less expensive [compared with ultrasound], it'll find its way into the marketplace," says Richard Paul, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, in Los Angeles. And, according to Gomez, the new monitor is considerably less expensive than ultrasound.

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