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Belly lift device could help obese patients breathe easier

Students at Rice University devise a way to literally lift a patient's burden during medical procedures.

Being obese can bring on a wide range of health complications, some less obvious than others.

So when a physician in Houston asked bioengineering students at Rice University to help relieve his obese patients' burden of breathing during surgery, the idea "sounded a little weird," said senior Norman Truong, according to a press release. But his team, calling themselves R-Aides, took on the challenge.

Rice University students hold their R-Aides device. Rice University

The resulting device literally lifts the burden obese patients carry on their abdomens during surgery by using a simple suspension device that consists of suction cups attached to a horizontal beam and tied in to a vacuum pump.

"I was in the midst of a surgical procedure on a very obese patient when he started snoring, which implies the airway may be a little bit occluded," said Mehdi Razavi, the director of electrophysiology clinical research at the Texas Heart Institute who brought the idea to Rice.

"His oxygen levels were going down, and he was trying to push against his abdominal contents to breathe.... If there was a way to support his belly, he would probably do much better and there would be less chance of having to declare an emergency and put a breathing tube in."

The bioengineering students asked around to see if doctors felt a device that lifts this weight would be useful. Most said they just deal with the problem, having assistants manually lift excess fat if it disrupts breathing or heart rate, but that they'd prefer a solution in part because complications resulting from procedures are not reimbursed. This means that hospitals have to foot the bill should an obese patient require, say, a breathing tube.

To avoid bruising the skin while using a vacuum pump, the students found that breast pumps, with flexible rubber rims that maintain a solid seal, are the gentlest suction devices.

They then tested their device -- which would not work during abdominal surgery -- by adding 40-pound slabs of silicone to their own abdomens and monitoring their vitals before, during, and after the weight was lifted.

After finding that the device improved heart rate without any bruising to the skin, the students filed a provisional patent. Razavi says his medical device company Saranas might develop the device; the students said their prototype cost less than $200 to build.

"The device will be very cheap, and the amount of training required to use it will be nominal," Razavi said.

The seniors graduate with honors this week after winning best pitch last week at Rice's third annual Venture Challenge. Razavi says he hopes the students will present their device to the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions in Los Angeles in November.

See it in action below: