Baby Bubbler could help ailing infants breathe

A portable device out of Rice University is aimed at helping children with acute respiratory infections breathe naturally as they recover.

Baby Bubbler
A doll hooked up to the Baby Bubbler, which pumps air from a flow generator to the infant, who breathes through nasal prongs. The gadget is aimed at babies in the developing world. Rice University

A prototype breathing-assist device for babies is on its way from Texas to Malawi, the first step in clinical trials that could lead to adoption of the device in the developing world.

Dubbed the Baby Bubbler, the portable, 3-pound gadget is aimed at helping children with acute respiratory infections breathe naturally as they recover.

The product, a type of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device created by seniors at Houston's Rice University, is not a ventilator, as it requires patients to breathe on their own. The idea is that it could help babies--particularly in areas of the world where medical care is scarce--forgo ventilators altogether. CPAP devices are commonly used to treat sleep apnea.

Baby Bubbler
Haruka Maruyama, a Rice University student from Tokyo, prepares a doll for a prototype of the Baby Bubbler that will be demonstrated in Africa. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

The Baby Bubbler works by pumping air from a flow generator to the infant, who breathes through nasal prongs, and then to a second component, a water bottle that serves as a regulator. The air pressure level can be altered by adjusting the depth of water in the bottle, and a built-in alarm detects water backflow and warns doctors if the circuit loses pressure. Components travel together in a plastic container.

"It's a simple design, but it's incredibly important in developing countries where the nurse-to-patient ratio is sometimes 1 nurse for 40 or so patients," said Rice senior Michael Pandya, who developed the device with fellow students Joseph Chang, Haruka Maruyama, Katie Schnelle, and Jocelyn Brown.

Brown was a member of a team that brought the Baby Bubbler to Rwanda this spring as part of a global health technology commercialization class offered at Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business. This summer, $140 prototypes of the Baby Bubbler will head to Malawi and Lesotho as part of Beyond Traditional Borders, Rice's global health initiative that challenges students to develop technologies that address pressing health needs in the developing world.

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

The Baby Bubbler is just one of a series of inventions spawned by the Beyond Traditional Borders program. Others include a low-cost centrifuge for detecting anemia; an Ob-Gyn lab in a backpack that contains essential supplies for 100 field exams; and a warming crib (PDF) to help premature and ill newborns maintain an appropriate body temperature.

About the author

Leslie Katz, Crave's senior editor, heads up a team that covers the most crushworthy (and wackiest) tech, science, and culture around. As a co-host of the now-retired CNET News Daily Podcast, she was sometimes known to channel Terry Gross and still uses her trained "podcast voice" to bully the speech recognition software on automated customer service lines. E-mail Leslie.


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