A new incubator that uses heating pads and other simple materials to keep hypothermic infants warm can be flat-packed and shipped at minimal cost anywhere in the world.
The incubator, designed and built by engineering students at Rice University, gently raises the core temperature of an infant experiencing hypothermia, a dangerous condition in which the baby’s temperature falls below 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
The students plan to ship the final prototype of the IncuBaby incubator to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi this summer.
Low-cost and safe
The team designed the incubator for wards that have a steady supply of power, choosing to focus on keeping an infant’s environment appropriate to raise its core temperature. That required electronics to monitor the baby’s temperature and control heating pads set into double-wall plywood panels in one wall and the floor.
“There have been a lot of solutions in the past for incubator designs, but they all fell short in one area or another,” says bioengineering major Carissa Livingston. “Others haven’t necessarily prioritized safety or they focused on short-term solutions you would find outside of a hospital, like warming up some sort of a sleeping bag to keep a baby warm for about three hours.
“We want to focus on creating low-cost but safe incubators and make it suitable for in-hospital settings, so we incorporated temperature feedback to automatically adjust to the temperature of the baby to keep the baby at an optimal, non-hypothermic temperature,” she says. “That’s something you see in a lot of incubators in the developed world but you don’t see it at all in developing countries.”
One other difference, is that hospital incubators cost as much as $35,000. Parts for IncuBaby cost about $250, and the designers hope to keep its production version between $300 and $400.
Plenty of room
The prototype consists of two boxes: one to hold the baby and one to hold the electronics and readouts. Both are made primarily of laser-cut plywood, with acrylic windows in the top and front and polystyrene foam for insulation in the hollow walls that don’t contain heating pads.
Key to the incubator design was that it could be replicated in-country or manufactured elsewhere and shipped. “This box could be easily laser-cut in-country, if they have access to the equipment, but there are other constraints,” says mechanical engineering major Amanda Boone. “The acrylic and foam are a lot easier to get in the United States, so we designed it so it could be fabricated here and flat-packed for assembly on-site.”
Another consideration was making the incubator big enough for different sized babies, says bioengineering major Bailey Flynn. “Primarily, it’s meant for neonates. Typically, hypothermic neonates would be premature, so they’re smaller than a normal baby, but we wanted our box to be able to accommodate infants as well.
“We also have to allow room for the doctor to be able to access the infant, and in case the child has any medical equipment that has to be in the box,” she says.
Without access to a baby for testing, the team used an IV bag connected to a beaker on a hot plate to simulate an infant’s core temperature. “A lot of the work we’ve done has been testing,” says bioengineering major Caleb Owsley. “Our goal is to make something really simple and user-friendly. If you’re putting a fragile life in there, you’re going to want a lot of validation.”
Some aspects of the incubator still need tweaking, the team says, including adding a fabric band to secure the temperature probe to the infant and a weaning setting.
“The challenge has been to get it to a place where it works pretty well and there won’t be much left to do,” Boone says.
Zaid Haque, a bioengineering major, also worked on the project that was sponsored by the Association of Rice Engineering Alumni, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Rice’s 360’s Beyond Traditional Borders.
Source: Rice University