RICE (US)—A newly developed portable device will help children with acute respiratory infections breathe naturally as they recover from illness.

The Baby Bubbler—or the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)—was invented by senior students at Rice University who recognized the need for a portable device for infants that can be taken to countries lacking resources for medical equipment.

According to the World Health Organization, about 20 percent of deaths in children younger than 5 are caused by acute lower respiratory infections; 90 percent of those deaths are caused by pneumonia.

“Our device is not a replacement for a ventilator—it’s a respiratory support device,” says Heather Machen, assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“Unlike a ventilator, a patient must be able to breathe on his or her own. With the use of CPAP, many children will be able to recover without a ventilator.”

The Baby Bubbler has two main components, says senior Michael Pandya. One component, a flow generator, pumps air through a tube and allows clinicians to add oxygen if needed. The tube goes from the generator to the infant, who breathes through nasal prongs, and then to the second component, a water bottle that serves as a regulator.

“The pressure level to the patient can be changed by adjusting the depth of water in the bottle,” Pandya explains.

An alarm to detect backflow of water into the line warns doctors if the circuit loses pressure. “It’s a simple design, but it’s incredibly important in developing countries where the nurse-to-patient ratio is sometimes one nurse for 40 or so patients,” he says.

Jocelyn Brown served double duty as the only bioengineering student on the five-member infantAIR team, which brought the Baby Bubbler to Rwanda this spring as part of a global health technology commercialization class.

“This team has been great at understanding the design challenges and addressing them head-on,” says Maria Oden, professor in the practice of engineering education and director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where much of the work was done.

Prototypes, which cost about $140 to make, will travel with students this summer as part of Rice’s global health initiative, Beyond Traditional Borders. They will be demonstrated in Malawi and Lesotho, the first step toward clinical testing.

In addition, Machen is recruiting local physicians interested in piloting the device and educational materials in their hospitals. “Their input and involvement will be vital to the success of this project,” she says.

“The United Nations has designated reducing under-5 mortality by two-thirds by 2015 as one of its Millennium Development Goals. We hope that this bubble CPAP will contribute toward achieving that goal.”

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