University of Nottingham developing app to identify premature babies

An app that identifies babies born prematurely in developing world countries is being created at The University of Nottingham with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The app uses a mobile phone’s camera to take photographs of a baby’s feet, face and ear to determine if it has been born prematurely and will require special medical care.

The project, which will be developed by experts from the university’s Division of Child Health, Obstetrics and Gynaecology and School of Computer Science is being supported with a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation aims to tackle critical problems worldwide in sectors such as health, development and education.

Dr Michel Valstar, of the School of Computer Sciences, said: “We are talking about countries where new mothers have little or no access to medical facilities, yet remarkably smartphone technology is ubiquitous.

Our aim is to harness that technology to transform mobile phones into medical devices that can easily be used by someone without medical training.

This project was one of around 60 successful bids from 1700 applications for funding from the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations Grant (GCE) programme.

GCE gives vital funding to projects across the world which innovatively try to solve the way we deal with health and development challenges.

In developing places like Africa and India, access to antenatal ultrasound scans is scarce and traditional methods of estimating gestation are not always reliable.

More than one million babies worldwide, predominantly in the developing world, die due to prematurity.

Dr Don Sharkey, Clinical Associate Professor of Neonatal Medicine, said: “This could be a potentially transformative technology for the developing world where the majority of women do not benefit from specialist antenatal services during pregnancy and higher risks of infection and illness means premature births are commonplace.”

Hygiene and nutrition

The ability to determine the development of babies and consequences of premature birth can help community leaders and doctors in third world countries to advise the mother on hygiene and nutrition.

In some cases, premature babies may also need to go to a hospital which could be hundreds of miles away – and the app will help them make an informed decision on this matter.

Images of the baby’s features will be uploaded to a massive database where it will compared to other pictures of babies at various gestational periods in order to find a match.

From spring 2015, a team will be collecting baseline data by taking photos of babies in the maternity and neonatal units at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

During the 18-month project, the development team will also explore ethnic differences when it comes to gestation as babies born in Africa and China may have different characteristics compared to those born in the Western world.

If a successful prototype is demonstrated by the end of the project, there will be the opportunity to bid for more funding in order to develop the technology for use in the real world.

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