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3D Printed ‘Sneezometer’ Can Help Diagnose Asthma

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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University of Surrey creates 3D printed sneezometer which makes it cheaper and easier to detect respiratory diseases

British scientists have created a new piece of medical equipment that is “fast enough to pickup the speed of a sneeze”, using a 3D printer.

The “fastest and most accurate flow meter in the world” is now designed for use by medical respirologists, but essentially the use of the device in a medical context was “entirely by accident”.

Pass The Kleenix

sneezeUntil now, medical professionals needed fairly expensive ‘spirometers’ to measure lung capacity. These spirometer devices are used by doctors to diagnose respiratory conditions such as asthma, obstructive sleep apnoea and hypopnoea.

Aside from the issue of the cost, these devices could also be cumbersome and lack the sensitivity in difficult diagnostic situations, such as neonatal care.

To help tackle respiratory diseases, the University of Surrey combined a team of aerodynamic engineers with extensive wind-tunnel measurement expertise, with medical doctors. They then used a 3D printer to create what the University is calling a ‘sneezometer’; a respiratory device that is sensitive and fast enough to measure the force of a sneeze.

It works by measuring the flow of air through a patient’s lungs. Essentially, a patent breathes (or sneezes) through the device, it can detect tiny fluctuations in the breath’s flow rate, which may be caused by a disease.

“Breathing disorders are highly prevalent in the developed and developing world, with one in twelve people in the UK currently receiving treatment for asthma,” explained Dr David Birch, of the University of Surrey’s Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research Group.

“The diagnosis and monitoring of respiratory diseases is key to proper treatment and we have now developed a simple, low-cost and non-intrusive diagnostic solution that will make doctors lives easier across the world.

“We have created a portable, highly sensitive and accurate spirometer that can catch the speed of a sneeze,” said Dr. Paul Nathan, the sneezometer’s co-inventor. “What’s almost as impressive is that we created this innovative device using simple 3D printing technology, with all of the prototypes ‘printed’ around the internal electronics.”

Hospital Trials

The Sneezometer is currently being trialled at Kings College Hospital, London where the device may be used to help diagnose a range of conditions.

“The ability to measure the sensitivity of airflow detection and pull out other information from single breath is very interesting from both a research and clinical perspective,” added Dr Manasi Nandi, Senior Lecturer in Integrative Pharmacology at King’s College London. “This is currently not picked out with conventional tests, and we have already been using it to mimic testing of asthma.”

The sneezometer could enter clinical service as soon as 2018.

“From our expertise in wind-tunnel measurement we have translated fundamental research into an incredibly beneficial technology that will have real impact on the lives of patients with chronic illnesses and will make diagnosis faster, cheaper and more accurate,” said Dr Birch.

Medical Tech

Technology is increasingly being used by medical experts seeking to tackle everyday human deseases and illness.

Google for example has partnered with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis to develop ‘smart’ contact lenses, designed to help people with diabetes track their blood glucose levels.

IBM last year expanded its healthcare operations with the acquisition of medical imaging company Merge Health for $1 billion (£660m). Merge Health’s capabilities have been incorporated into IBM’s health analytics unit, which is powered by the Watson supercomputer.

And Apple has expanded its health ambitions with the open source ResearchKit framework. This allows iPhone and Apple Watch users to participate in medical and health research.

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