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SpiroSense offers hope to patients with respiratory illness

May 13, 2015
A student demonstrates how to use the prototype.

A group of Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering undergraduate students has invented a device that offers hope for people worldwide who are struggling with respiratory illnesses.

SpiroSense, an inexpensive spirometer that gauges whether a person’s breathing is obstructed or restricted, could help patients in remote or poor areas in developing countries get treatment for such ailments as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Chronic lung diseases are the third leading cause of death in the world.

“Traditional spirometers can cost anywhere from $750 to $20,000 for your highest-end diagnostic spirometer,” says senior Rodolfo Finocchi ’15, team leader for SpiroSense’s eight-student undergraduate team. “Our device costs less than $25 to produce.”

The team poses together with the prototype.
SpiroSense design team (from left): Angelo Cruz, Rohit Joshi, Rohith Bhethanabotla, Rodolfo Finocchi, Rachel Yung, Chris Corbett (in back), Manyu Sharma and Xindi Ai

SpiroSense was one of nearly two dozen medical innovations created by students for this year’s Johns Hopkins Biomedical Engineering Design Day, held May 5 at the East Baltimore campus. More than 140 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the challenge, which is divided into health innovations intended for use in the United States and those — like SpiroSense — designed for use in the developing world.

Most spirometers rely on pressure or ultrasound sensors that are expensive and require frequent calibration to ensure their accuracy, making them impractical for use in less-developed countries, says Finocchi.

The SpiroSense is different: Once patients blow into the device, two small battery-operated microphones detect the air pattern. Accompanying software processes this audio signal to determine the volume and velocity of air exhaled. Clinicians in other locations, such as hospitals, could use this information to make a diagnosis virtually. The low-cost, deskilled device could offer the possibility of care to patients unable to travel for treatment.

Early testing of the SpiroSense found that a 3-D printed version was as accurate as more expensive spirometers. The team is now looking to secure manufacturing of the device so it can be field-tested in remote areas of India. “We’ve been able to prove our prototype works,” said Finocchi. “I think we’re ready to start some field testing.”

In March, SpiroSense won Rice University’s National Undergraduate Global Health Technology Design Competition and in May tied for first place in the medical technology category (undergraduate track) at Johns Hopkins’ Business Plan Competition.

SpiroSense junior team member Rachel Yung says the project was a great learning experience. Undergraduates participate in a Design Team academic course and work with graduate students through the Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design (CBID), which falls under the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering. CBID’s graduate program director, Soumyadipta Acharya, MD, PhD, was the team’s adviser.

“You’re kind of just thrown out there to figure out how to make your way through designing a product,” says Yung. “We’ve been able to network with so many different doctors and professors in a wide variety of fields.”

At Design Day, teams presented everything from an instrument to assist neurosurgeons in separating scar tissue from bone to a uterine contraction monitor that tracks labor progression in women in developing countries.

“We’re fortunate to teach the most talented students in the country, perhaps the world,” said Robert Allen, CBID’s undergraduate program director. “With a little bit of guidance, they’re able to achieve amazing things.”


— Sarah Richards

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