North Carolina University researchers are developing wearable technology that could give doctors live updates on their patients’ respiratory problems. Researchers at ASSIST (Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies) have developed wearable sensors powered by body heat, which can be used by the new algorithm to monitor patients’ breathing.

By Phoebe-Vowels Webb

We’ve developed an algorithm that can assess the onset time, pitch and magnitude of wheezing sounds to give healthcare professionals information about the condition of the lungs. This information, in turn, can be used to help doctors make more informed decisions about diagnosis and treatment.”  – Hamid Krim, North Carolina University

Saba Emrani and Hamid Krim have already tested their algorithm, and so far there have been successful and promising results, which could eventually be implemented through wearable technology. The idea is that the algorithm is applied to patients’ breathing, and its data collected through body-heat-powered sensors developed by ASSIST researchers. The analysis of wearers’ wheezing would then be transmitted to an app on their smartphones. The suffering of people with breathing problems could very soon be more quickly and effectively treated, and premature death could be prevented.

Lives are lost every year as asthmatics struggle with breathing problems in their sleep
Lives are lost every year as asthmatics struggle with breathing problems in their sleep

This work is very important, because even though there’s already a lot of awareness and support for conditions such as asthma and emphysema, too many people still die. On average 3 people die a day from asthma attacks in the UK alone, but this research could soon change this unacceptable death rate.

I used to know a girl at school; she was kind, interesting and hardworking. In the summer before our final year, she had an acute asthma attack in her sleep, and died. Because of a preventable problem a family lost a daughter and a big sister. There are too many other stories like this. Too many people are dying from treatable breathing problems, often because they’re simply asleep. If this research goes ahead further tragedies could be prevented. Krim and Emrani hope their work leads to patients receiving alerts when their breathing becomes too impeded, in time to use their pump, drugs or oxygen. For people with severe cases of breathing conditions, their sensors could report directly to their hospital so that the right help can be dispatched immediately.

Before developing and mass producing the technology, the research will be presented at the 2015 European Signal Processing Conference. If the work is continued, the algorithm and body-heat-powered sensors could revolutionise the way that doctors assist patients with respiratory problems.

Whilst the potentially life-saving benefits of this technology are the obvious headline, people with conditions like asthma, acute sinusitis and emphysema could benefit in another way. Sufferers could gain a deeper understanding of their condition, making it easier for them to identify and avoid triggers by observing their breathing status on their smart phone.

Not only could Krim and Emrani’s research lead to helping millions of people, but it will contribute to the wider global wearables market, which is already predicted to grow at a compound rate of 35% for the next five years., More researchers are developing technology to improve our lives. The JustMilk is just one; it aims to ensure life-saving medicine and nutrients are given to babies through mother’s milk. The rate at which this market is growing, and the calibre of its products, indicates a new era of practical and life-preserving technology. If this algorithm is built into sensors to help diagnose breathing problems, lives could be immediately enhanced as well as the market. The future’s bright.

Written by Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance tech journalist working closely with clients in the drone industry.

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