By creating their own smart fabric, a multidisciplinary team of Drexel faculty has developed a fetal monitor that is wireless, accurate and comfortable to wear. Known as the bellyband, the device will be able to monitor uterine contractions and fetal heart rate in real time without tethering the expectant mother to a bed. The project has received IRB approval, and a clinical trial involving 20 pregnant patients is expected to start in fall 2016. In addition to assessment during labor, the bellyband could be used to monitor high-risk pregnancies or as a quick, noninvasive procedure during a routine check-up, according to Owen Montgomery, MD, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the College of Medicine, who provided the vision for this device.
"My role is to think of the needs we have in health care that could be solved with the use of smart fabrics," Montgomery says. "My colleagues in the College of Engineering and the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory have spent thousands of hours to develop the invention." Montgomery also recruits other clinicians to the team and conducts clinical research.
The bellyband was designed by Genevieve Dion, an associate professor of design and the director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory, a state-of-theart knitting facility dedicated to smart textiles. The device was developed, through some 20 iterations, by College of Engineering researchers Kapil Dandekar, PhD, a wireless communications expert; Adam Fontecchio, PhD; and Timothy Kurzweg, PhD. The collaboration is supported by the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership, based in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. The team also received a National Science Foundation grant of nearly $814,000 to support their work.1
The bellyband is knitted using coated silver conductive thread. The knitting machines are programmed to seamlessly knit a pattern across the center of the band that serves as a wireless, passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. Signal processing algorithms developed in Drexel’s Electrical and Computer Engineering laboratories process the changes in received signal characteristics from the RFID to measure the intensity of the uterine contractions and other medical information from mother and fetus.
Owen Montgomery, MD, HU ’81
The bellyband is designed to stretch to fit around a pregnant woman’s abdomen at any point in her pregnancy. Unlike existing fetal heart monitors, the bellyband allows the woman to get up and walk around within 10 to 14 feet of the receiver, giving her much more freedom of movement and comfort.
"Because this is wireless technology, doctors should eventually be able to monitor their patients inside or outside of a hospital," Dandekar says. Eventually, he suggests, "it may be developed into a monitoring service that could immediately signal medical professionals if there is a problem."
Other Health Care Applications
Moving forward, Montgomery says, "a piece of our NSF grant is to take the concept of smart technology and envision what else we could do with it."
The team is working on applications such as monitoring for and preventing sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Using a new grant2 from the National Institutes of Health, the group has also been investigating a wearable wireless robotic legging device to prevent blood clots from forming in patients’ legs. "Reducing blood clot risk in the mother reduces the risk of fetal pulmonary embolism," says Montgomery. The device is designed to be comfortable and washable, and potentially self-powered using body heat or electrolytes. So instead of the patient being tied to the pump and stuck in a chair or bed, she could get up and walk around; the device would sense when she is not moving and would massage the legs.
Montgomery notes that, in addition to being a physician, he is a patient who has experience with Holter monitors. "Right now, you have a device with 12 wires that you have to carry with you, and the device records the information. Wouldn’t it be easier just to put on a T-shirt that has the 12 leads knitted into it and have the information sent to your cell phone? Between that idea and making it happen are thousands of hours of engineering laboratory work. These are just some of the things I can envision for smart fabric.
"As a patient — and a surgeon — I think of the needs," he continues. "Then I ask my engineering colleagues to see if they can solve them. The strength is all of us working together. This work is the embodiment of the College of Medicine linking technology to a tradition of caring."
Working with the Coulter-Drexel Partnership and the Drexel University Office of Technology Transfer, the multidisciplinary team has applied for a patent not only on the concept of smart fabric uterine monitoring for pregnancy but also on the platform technology that will allow them to develop additional applications such as SIDS and cardiac monitors and the thrombophlebitis-preventing leggings.
1 NSF Partnership for Innovation program grant no. 1430212 (PI Dandekar)
2 NIH/NSF Cyberphysical Systems grant no. 1-U01-EB023035-01 (PI Dandekar)