PREMATURE babies across the world will soon benefit from technology developed and trialled in Tasmania.

A 10-year collaborative effort between Tasmanian engineers and medical researchers has resulted in the development of technology aimed at helping control the amount of oxygen delivered to premature babies, setting them on their way to breathing independently.

Led by Menzies Institute researcher and Royal Hobart Hospital neonatologist Peter Dargaville and University of Tasmania robotic engineer Tim Gale, some of the state’s brightest minds have been working on the project, including UTAS honours, masters and PhD students. [These include three mechatronic engineering and two biomedical engineering honours students from UTAS.]

About 8 per cent of babies are born premature, with about 70 in Tasmania each year born at less than 32 weeks gestation and about 20 of those babies being less than 28 weeks gestation. Prof Dargaville said premature babies often needed respiratory support for weeks and sometimes months.

“That relies on the bedside staff constantly making adjustments to the oxygen concentration that’s delivered second by second, except they don’t have the capability to do it that frequently,” Prof Dargaville said.

“So the idea then was that we would design a device to do that for them.

“Everyone is grappling to get this technology because they know it’s going to be marketable and a ventilator that doesn’t have it will be soon be considered old-fashioned.”

The researchers conducted their first trial in 2015 with 20 Tasmanian babies over a period of four hours.

“We found the automated control in every baby lead to an improvement and in the group as a whole, lead to a 25 per cent improvement in the amount of time in the target range for oxygen, which was a significant result,” he said.

The next trial is set to start in the coming days.

“We’ve been working feverishly to get ready — there’s a lot more technology involved than ever before,” Prof Dargaville said.

“We’re proposing to do 60 24-hour periods of study, with at least 30 babies.”

The project has gained interest from across the globe, with an international company specialising in neonatal respiratory supportive equipment interested in signing an agreement with the university.

“They’re wanting to embed our intellectual property, our automative method, into their devices,” Dr Gale said.

“That’s almost a signed deal now — the university is preparing documents so it looks like a sure thing at the moment. They sell their products worldwide, apart from the US.”

Dr Gale said there was great potential for the state to leverage off its position as a world leader in this space.

“Niche industries like the biomedical industry is an area Tasmania needs to capitalise on as it’s an area that could really boom,” he said.

Prof Dargaville and Dr Gale will speak about their project at a public talk at the Menzies Institute in Hobart from 6-7pm on Wednesday.

This story, written by Jessica Howard, originally appeared in The Mercury on March 21, 2017:

Feature image: Dr Tim Gale and Professor Peter Dargaville in the Neonatal ward at the Royal Hobart Hospital. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN. Copyright: The Mercury


If you’re interested in developing instruments for medical purposes and working with medical research teams, you might want to consider studying engineering at the University of Tasmania. Find out more about our engineering and other degrees now.