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Helping Kids with Asthma Breathe Easier

November 19, 2015 4:56 PM
UMBC team to develop wearable system to track asthma triggers in pediatric patients.

An innovative team of researchers working across engineering fields has received a nearly $2 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) PRISMS program to develop a comprehensive system to monitor critical environmental asthma triggers and physiological status indicators for pediatric asthma patients.

Living with asthma, a chronic disease caused by the inflammation of the airway, can substantially impact a person’s well-being and, if not controlled, can be life threatening. Asthma prevalence has increased over the past decade to now impact 25.7 million adults and 7.1 million children in the United States, with disproportionately high rates of asthma and low levels of asthma control among children in urban and minority groups.

The grant is led by UMBC’s Center for Advanced Sensor Technology (CAST). UMBC PIs Yordan Kostov and Govind Rao, assistant director and director of CAST, respectively, teamed up with Southern Methodist University psychology professors and asthma experts Thomas Ritz and Alicia Meuret, as well as UMBC computer science and electrical engineering (CSEE) faculty Ryan Robucci and Nilanjan Banerjee, and chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering (CBEE) faculty Xudong Ge and Chris Hennigan.

The wearable asthma monitoring system they are developing will include technology that measures environmental triggers, such as air pollution, pollen, dust, smoke and pet hair, and a monitor that measures physiological triggers, such as level of physical activity and emotional stress. Both types of triggers can exacerbate asthma symptoms. Studies on existing oxygen and carbon dioxide sensors will be analyzed and applied to the development of this technology.
The monitoring system will be small enough to be worn by the patient in the form of a pendent, explains Yordan Kostov, research professor in CBEE and adjunct professor in CSEE. He notes that although simple asthma trigger monitoring systems do exist, they have had limited success due to the need to measure a great variety of potential asthma triggers.

“A wide range of sensors are being developed as part of this project, including breathing rate detection sensors, particle monitoring sensors, and carbon dioxide and oxygen sensors,” Banerjee explains. “Using them together, for the first time, we will be able to accurately determine reliable triggers of asthma amongst children.”

The researchers anticipate these highly accurate measurements will have a significant impact on pediatric asthma patients’ well-being. As Kostov describes, “The monitoring system will help patients objectively determine when and why they experienced the asthma symptoms.”

Children with asthma and their parents can have difficulty noticing or recalling environmental factors that have triggered asthma attacks. Kostov notes that this problem increases families’ anxiety, as it can make attacks less predictable and more frequent, and that’s where this new technology can help. The monitoring system will enable asthma patients and physicians decode correlations between asthma symptoms and environmental factors, improving their ability to prevent future attacks and decreasing their anxiety around anticipating those attacks.

Ryan Robucci, assistant professor of CSEE, hones in on a major factor, behind the scenes, that makes this team’s work so innovative and compelling. The project’s integrated, interdisciplinary approach allows the research team to explore scientific questions that require new sensors, systems, data collection, analytics, and domain expertise to find answers.

“The strength of this NIH project is in its diverse team,” says Nilanjan Banerjee, assistant professor of CSEE. “We have experts in chemical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and experts who work closely with individuals suffering from asthma.”

What unites them all, explains Chris Hennigan, assistant professor of CBEE, is the gratification and high motivation they feel in working on a problem that affects so many children. Govind Rao, professor in CBEE agrees. His definition of success for this work is ultimately developing “a suite of sensors that help children better manage chronic asthma and lead better lives.”

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