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July 2, 2022

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WSU Vancouver researchers help develop ‘smart pacifier’

Smart pacifier device to eliminate twice-daily blood draws from newborn babies

By , Columbian staff writer
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Jong-Hoon Kim, an associate professor at WSU Vancouver, holds a "smart pacifier," he helped develop. The device is used to monitor babies' electrolytes in Newborn Intensive Care Units, and it could potentially eliminate the need for an invasive, twice-daily blood draw normally performed to monitor babies' electrolytes, potassium and hydration levels.
Jong-Hoon Kim, an associate professor at WSU Vancouver, holds a "smart pacifier," he helped develop. The device is used to monitor babies' electrolytes in Newborn Intensive Care Units, and it could potentially eliminate the need for an invasive, twice-daily blood draw normally performed to monitor babies' electrolytes, potassium and hydration levels. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Pacifiers are known to help babies relax, but what if they could be used to monitor a baby’s health?

A new device partially developed at Washington State University Vancouver does just that.

Researchers at WSU Vancouver helped develop a wireless, bioelectronic pacifier — deemed a “smart pacifier” — that could eliminate the need for invasive, twice-daily blood draws regularly performed in Newborn Intensive Care Units to monitor babies’ electrolytes, sodium, potassium ion and hydration levels.

“We know that premature babies have a better chance of survival if they get a high quality of care in the first month of birth,” said Jong-Hoon Kim, associate professor at the WSU School of Engineering and Computer Science and a co-corresponding author on the study. “Normally, in a hospital environment, they draw blood from the baby twice a day, so they just get two data points. This device is a noninvasive way to provide real-time monitoring of the electrolyte concentration of babies.”

Researchers tested the smart pacifier on a selection of infants in a hospital, and results were comparable to data gained from their normal blood draws. They detailed their findings in a proof-of-concept study published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

Removing the need for invasive blood draws is what inspired researchers to develop the device. The blood-draw method can be potentially painful for babies, and it leaves big gaps in information since they are usually done once in the morning and once in the evening. Other methods have been developed to test an infant’s saliva for electrolytes, but they involve bulky devices that require a separate sample collection.

“We wanted to be able to collect a sample more naturally and smoothly,” Kim said. “We thought of a pacifier because every single activity with a pacifier involves saliva, which is the sample we want to collect.”

Using a commercially available pacifier, the researchers created a system that samples a baby’s saliva through microfluidic channels. Whenever the baby has the pacifier in their mouth, saliva is naturally attracted to these channels, meaning the device doesn’t require any kind of pumping system. The channels have small sensors inside that measure the sodium and potassium ion concentrations in the saliva. This data is then relayed wirelessly using Bluetooth to the caregiver.

“You often see NICU pictures where babies are hooked up to a bunch of wires to check their health conditions such as their heart rate, the respiratory rate, body temperature and blood pressure,” Kim said. “We want to get rid of those wires.”

Now that the researchers have completed their proof-of-concept study, they will now attempt to make the components of the smart pacifier more affordable and recyclable. Then, they will conduct a larger test of the smart pacifier to establish its efficacy.

After that, Kim would like to see the smart pacifier used in NICUs across the world.

“At this point, we don’t have any time frame for commercialization,” he said. “After we finish some large group clinical trials, we will start thinking about a detailed plan for commercialization. We want everybody to be able to access and use this device, but it will take some time to see this product in the market.”

It took a full year to develop the smart pacifier, according to WSU mechanical engineering graduate student Sehyun Park, a student of Kim’s who helped develop the device.

Along with Kim, co-authors on the proof-of-concept study include researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Pukyong National University and Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea as well as WSU.

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