Can a new aerodynamics-inspired “sneezometer” that measures airflow with high speed and sensitivity offer a new tool for respiratory disease diagnostics?
Michael Schubert |
David Birch, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Surrey, UK and one of the Sneezometer’s creators, seems to think so. He tells us more.
The University of Surrey Centre for Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow has a reputation for building new instruments to measure things nobody has measured before. This time, it’s a special high-sensitivity spirometer known as a “sneezometer” (1). It was initially developed to address a tricky flow-measurement problem in aerodynamics, but a chance discussion with a health professional revealed the potential for the idea in medical care. At that point, Paul Nathan and I, along with our team, created an operational prototype in just three weeks! This project arose from Surrey’s specialized expertise in wind tunnel measurement and is a great example of how fundamental research can sometimes result in incredibly beneficial technologies in an entirely unpredictable way. In this case, a simple tool developed for fundamental turbulence research has evolved into a medical instrument that could reduce costs for healthcare providers and affect the lives of millions of people suffering from chronic health conditions.
The new spirometer measures the flow rate of air into and out of a patient’s lungs with extremely high speed and sensitivity. In addition to its use as a conventional spirometer, the sneezometer is fast enough to accurately characterize coughing flow, something with which existing spirometers have difficulty. As a result, it could be used in the diagnosis of a variety of chronic and acute respiratory conditions including asthma, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and hypopnea – all of which are highly prevalent and constitute a heavy burden to both healthcare systems and the lives of patients. Believed to be the most sensitive flow meter in existence, the sneezometer may have additional applications, for instance in the monitoring of neonatal infants or the training of elite athletes. It’s currently being tested on healthy volunteers at King’s College Hospital, London, but once approved for clinical use, we hope it will be used on patients of all ages for respiratory disease diagnosis (including remote diagnostics) and home monitoring.
Our new instrument is much faster and more accurate than conventional spirometry systems, so we hope it will eventually replace those larger, more expensive devices. In addition, it’s small enough to be portable (or even wearable), and its low cost would make it ideal for use in locations where conventional diagnostic tools are less available.
The sneezometer will make respiratory disease diagnosis easier, quicker and cheaper. It also provides much more detailed data than we’ve ever had before, so we don’t know how far its potential could reach. Early (and exciting) indications from the testing at King’s show that there may be a connection between the severity of an asthma attack and the airway turbulence. It may be that, as testing continues, our clinical colleagues find surprising new uses for our device!
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- A Sutton, “World’s first 3D-printed sneezometer’ will help asthma patients breathe easy”, (2016). Available at: bit.ly/1TXUg64. Accessed April 6, 2016.