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Away from the light: Students design blanket to help jaundiced babies

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Posted April 24, 2014

About 60 percent of infants are born jaundiced and many spend their first days of life isolated from their mothers underneath special lights that help them eliminate the excess bilirubin in their bloodstreams.

However, three Michigan State University College of Engineering students have come up with something that may put those babies back in their mothers’ arms: A prototype of a blanket-like device that wraps around the child and breaks down bilirubin molecules.

A team of MSU engineering students has developed new technology that may help treat jaundiced babies. It's a blanket-like device that is wrapped around the child, allowing him or her to be held by the parents. Photo courtesy of the MSU College of Engineering.

A team of MSU engineering students has developed new technology that may help treat jaundiced babies. It’s a blanket-like device that is wrapped around the child, allowing him or her to be held by the parents. Photo courtesy of the MSU College of Engineering.

The project, called Swaddle-mi-Bili, is one of 150 innovative projects showcased at the MSU College of Engineering 20th Anniversary Design Day this Friday. The 8 a.m. to noon event is open to the public in the Engineering Building on the MSU campus, 428 S. Shaw Lane.

Bilirubin is found in bile and is produced when the liver breaks down old red blood cells. It is normally removed from the body through waste products.

Students Oliver Bloom, Vu Hoang and Alexa Jones created Swaddle-mi-Bili, a wearable treatment for infant jaundice. The prototype uses fiber optics inside an infant’s swaddle blanket as a friendlier means for light transfer.

“Jaundice is a disease of newborns,” said Jones, a biosystems engineering senior from Metamora. “It presents itself as a yellowing of the skin or eyes. Therapy using blue visible light breaks down the molecule so it can be harmlessly excreted from the baby’s body.”

The trio met with 85 nurses and doctors, primarily at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, but also with neonatal staff at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, during the customer-discovery phase of their research. Their goal was to find a treatment that allows the parents to hold their newborns during treatment, which usually involves isolating the baby in incubators or on small inflexible pads during those first precious days of bonding time.

“We set out to improve on the traditional phototherapy method and came up with the swaddle idea,” Jones said.

“The blue light is what provides the treatment,” said Bloom, a biosystems engineering student from Holly, Mich. “The medical staffs loved the idea and were ecstatic about it.”

Hoang, a biosystems engineering student from Okemos, noted that the wearable solution could reduce the cost of treatment and allow for easy deployment in low-income areas of the United States.

Swaddle-mi-Bili has already won a student business model competition in Lansing and finished in the top eight of 84 teams at the Michigan Collegiate Innovation Prize competition, both in February. The team will compete at the International Business Model Competition at Brigham Young University in May.

Source: Michigan State University

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