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Researchers Devise Sensors and Phone App to Find Early Signs of Sickness in Newborns

November 15, 2017
MEDIA CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman
Office: 443-997-9907/Cell: 410-299-7460
prs@jhu.edu On Twitter @filroy

Johns Hopkins Project Receives Funding  from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Johns Hopkins University team that includes biomedical engineering faculty and graduate students, global health experts and technology specialists will receive a $100,000 grant to support their plan to enable mothers in remote villages to use novel, low-cost sensors and a simple cell phone app to spot serious health problems during their newborn babies’ critical first week.

The university’s NeMo team, short for Neonatal Monitoring, was named today as one of 51 new Grand Challenges Explorations winners in an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the award is to support innovative global health and development research projects. The grant will allow the Johns Hopkins team to further develop and test the sensors and accompanying cell phone application. If these steps are judged to be successful, the project could qualify to receive a follow-up grant of up to $1 million.

During a 2016 research trip to Africa, Johns Hopkins graduate student Mohit Singhalla allows a Ugandan mother to try out an early version of the NeMo system. The photo was shot by Polly Ma, another NeMo team member on that trip. Both graduated with master’s degrees last May, but the project continues with a new group of students.


The principal investigator of the Johns Hopkins NeMo team project is Soumyadipta Acharya, the graduate program director of the university’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design (CBID). The NeMo prototype has been tested and improved over the past two years by CBID graduate student teams and faculty.

Acharya said the student teams have studied the incidence of newborns’ deaths in developing regions where advanced medical care is not always readily available. The students traveled to Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda to see how people in rural villages often must rely on community health workers with limited medical training and many patients to see.

The students learned that 2.7 million newborns die annually, and 75 percent of these deaths occur during the first week of life. In developing regions, if a community health worker does not visit when a newborn baby shows symptoms of a serious health problem, the illness may be overlooked.

“Mothers and other family members often fail to recognize the early signs of a serious illness in time,” Acharya said. “But if you see the signs of illness early enough, the child could be referred to a district hospital for prompt treatment.”

The team members decided to empower the babies’ mothers, who are with the newborns most often, by providing the moms with a simple device to assess the baby’s health: a cell phone with testing attachments, along with software that prompts the mothers to answer key yes-or-no questions. The attachment is a small belt that is fastened across the newborn’s abdomen, along with a low-cost paper sensor strip.

The sensor works with the cell phone, and delivers data about the newborn’s temperature and breathing. The yes-or-no questions ask about other danger signs that the child might be displaying, such as convulsions, chest indrawing and reduced breast feeding. A positive test triggers a direct referral to the community health worker.

The Johns Hopkins graduate students who are part of this school year’s NeMo team are Christine Diaz, Katie Solley, Yueheng Dou, Benjamin Ostrander and Ailon Haileyesus. Recent graduates of the CBID program—Mohit Singhala, Andrew Jann, Rachel An, Polly Ma and Matthew Lerner—developed and tested preliminary versions of this technology platform in Uganda, and at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Faculty team members from the School of Medicine are Azadeh Farzin and Christopher Golden, both assistant professors of pediatrics-neonatology, and  Alain B. Labrique, an associate professor of global disease epidemiology and control at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Engineers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will provide technology development assistance. Makerere University in Uganda is the field collaborator on this project.

Color photos available; contact Phil Sneiderman.


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