Mar 2, 2016 | By Benedict

Take a deep breath: Researchers at the University of Surrey, UK, have 3D printed ta new piece of medical equipment called ‘sneezometer’, a spirometer that is sensitive enough to measure the speed of a sneeze. The 3D printed device could be used to diagnose respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Spirometers have long been used to measure lung capacity and diagnose respiratory conditions such as hypopnea, obstructive sleep apnoea, and asthma. However, never before has a spirometer been sensitive enough for diagnosis in situations such as neonatal care: “This, as we understand it, is the fastest and most accurate flow meter in the world,” claimed Dr David Birch, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering and member of the Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research Group at the University of Surrey. “It was specifically developed for use by respirologists, primarily because it’s fast enough to be able to pick up the speed of a sneeze.”

The 3D printed sneezometer could prove to be a breath of fresh air for respirologists, with the fist-sized device being fast and sensitive enough to detect tiny fluctuations in breath flow rate—fluctuations which could be symptomatic of a respiratory condition or disease. One in twelve UK residents currently receive treatment for asthma, with US figures almost identical. Effective diagnosis of the condition is essential for proper treatment, and the 3D printed sneezometer could contribute greatly to this process.

Medical professional can count themselves fortunate, because the project almost never materialized: “This was a project that came about entirely by accident,” Birch explained. “It just so happened that we were developing a highly sensitive flow meter as part of a graduate project that we were running, and some physicians found out about it. They were intrigued by the capability and asked us if they could borrow one to try it out. Now it seems that it’s starting to demonstrate that it can measure things nothing else can. It’s allowing them to diagnose diseases that they didn’t even know they’d be able to diagnose before.”

3D printing was used to create the sneezometer. The manufacturing technique enabled the researchers to build the plastic components around the internal electronics, which contributed to the compactness of the device. “The device was produced using our 3D printer, and manufactured in 30 micron layers—very thin slices, one on top of the other,” said Birch. “By doing that, we were able to form all of the internal ductwork, all the pipes and channels, into the plastic itself, which allows us to make it much smaller.”

The 3D printed spirometer could prove especially useful in polluted places, where respiratory conditions are more common and potentially more damaging. Citizens of certain busy cities have been waiting with bated breath for a device like the sneezometer, and the Surrey-based team hope to bring the product to public attention sooner rather than later. “Respiratory diseases are especially prevalent in developing cities such as Delhi and Beijing where air quality is a big concern,” said Dr Prashant Kumar, another member of the team.

Dr David Birch

“Air pollution was recently placed in the top ten health risks faced by human beings globally, with the World Health Organization linking air pollution to seven million premature deaths every year,” Kumar continued. “The availability of an inexpensive and portable diagnostic device such as this will assist in such diseases being diagnosed, and treated at earlier stages.”

The researchers are still developing the 3D printed flow meter so that it can be as effective as possible. The sneezometer is currently being trialled by medical professionals in multiple London locations. “We’ve been working closely with physicians at King’s College Hospital and other hospitals around London to try and figure out what it is exactly that they need this thing to do, and we’re trying to develop it in such a way that it will do exactly what they want,” said Birch.

According to Birch, the teamwork being exhibited by experts from multiple disciplines is helping to drive the project into previously unforeseen territory and is helping to improve the 3D printed sneezometer in every technical respect. “One of the things that makes this project unique is that we’ve got experimental aerodynamicists working together with physicians and medical doctors to try and bring the medical profession and the engineering one together for the diagnosis of lung function and lung-related diseases,” Birch said. “We have extensive expertise in the measurement of fluid flow, in the flow of the gases, in the thermodynamic state of gases, and it’s exciting to see that the physicians can put this measurement capability to use in the diagnosis of disorders and diseases.”

The University of Surrey research hope to see the 3D printed sneezometer in clinical service by 2018.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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