Researchers in Japan say they have developed the first wearable device to precisely monitor jaundice, a yellowing of the skin caused by elevated bilirubin levels in the blood that can cause severe medical conditions — even death — in newborns.
Jaundice can be treated easily by irradiating the infant with a blue light that breaks bilirubin down to be excreted through urine. The treatment itself, however, can disrupt bonding time, cause dehydration and increase the risks of allergic diseases. Neonatal jaundice is one of the leading causes of death and brain damage in infants in low- and middle-income countries.
To address the tricky balance of administering the precise amount of blue light needed to counteract the bilirubin’s exact levels, researchers in Yokohama developed a sensor to measure bilirubin continuously. It can also simultaneously detect pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation in real-time, according to a news release. The team published the research results this week in Science Advances.
“We have developed the world’s first wearable multi-vital device for newborns that can simultaneously measure neonatal jaundice, blood oxygen saturation and pulse rate,” said co-lead researcher Hiroki Ota, associate professor of mechanical engineering in Yokohama National University’s Graduate School of System Integration.
“The real-time monitoring of jaundice is critical for neonatal care,” Ota added, noting that jaundice occurs in 60% to 80% of all newborns. “Continuous measurements of bilirubin levels may contribute to the improvement of quality of phototherapy and patient outcome.”
Currently, medical professionals use handheld bilirubinometers to measure bilirubin levels, but no device can simultaneously measure jaundice and vitals in real-time.
Held to the baby’s forehead by a silicone interface, the Yokohama researchers’ device has a lens capable of efficiently transmitting lights to neonatal skin via battery-powered light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
“At the present stage, coin cell batteries are used, and the overall shape is very thick,” Ota said. “In the future, it will be necessary to further reduce the thickness and weight by using thin-film batteries and organic materials.”
The researchers tested the device on 50 babies, and they found that the device is not currently accurate enough to suffice for clinical decision-making. According to Ota, they will reduce the thickness and increase the device’s flexibility, as well as improve the silicone interface to facilitate better skin contact.
The researchers also plan to develop a combined treatment approach that pairs a wearable bilirubinometer with a phototherapy device to optimize the light therapy’s amount and duration based on continuous measurements of bilirubin levels.