Every year over 260,000 newborn infants in the U.S. are treated for respiratory distress, but current methods risk long term complications. Penn State Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Charles Palmer and Professor of Surgery and Bioengineering Dr. William Weiss believe their technology, ThoraciCair, could be the solution.
Current methods for non-invasive support to help the baby breathe fail in about half of all cases. This leads to the infant needing to be intubated with an endotracheal tube and mechanically ventilated, which can cause damage to the lungs and prolong the hospital stay. Not only that, but the machines required to perform these tasks require expertise and resources frequently unavailable in low income areas.
ThoraciCair is an elegant, stretchable, soft silicone set of tubes that encircle the ribcage and are pneumatically actuated. It has skin-friendly adhesive, approved for use on delicate neonatal skin. By varying the air pressure in the expander, the compliant chest wall is pulled outward to expand the lungs to assist breathing or compressed inward to assist in the clearance of secretions in the airways. The ThoraciCair could even be operated manually to save lives in a low resource environment.
Dr. Palmer presented the ThoraciCair concept at the 2018 Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference as part of the Tech Tournament. In a crowded field of hand-selected Penn State technology, Palmer and ThoraciCair took second place and won $50,000.
The ThoraciCair technology could be used with, or without, other forms of respiratory support such as a CPAP. Thoracicair is currently in clinical testing to determine if it can reduce the need for mechanical ventilation, which would reduce lung damage caused by positive pressure ventilation. It could help infants with respiratory distress, meconium aspiration, cystic fibrosis or bronchiolitis.
It’s not just the babies that could stand to benefit from the development of Thoracicair. Parents could have more access to their infant and their face won’t be covered by medical equipment. The device might also work in a home setting for patients with chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis or neuromuscular weakness.
This is not the first technology Dr. Palmer has invented either. He was featured in the National Academy of Inventors 2013-14 Annual Brochure for his inventions advancing care for pre-term babies. Palmer’s research has led to several patents on devices designed to improve health outcomes for high-risk newborns.
One such device is The Hug ‘n’ Snug Neonatal Chest Splint—a noninvasive device that is applied to the chest of a newborn in respiratory distress. The device provides better stabilization of the chest allowing a baby to breathe easier.
Palmer also founded the Penn State Pediatric Innovation Program — a collaboration between the Children’s Hospital, the University and industry partners focused on improving the development of technologies for infants and children. The program provides a platform for clinicians, engineers and industry to exchange ideas on innovative technologies and rapidly translate them into products/services in the clinic.