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November 14, 2023

WPI professor to lead development of oxygen level detector for infants of color

Photo | Courtesy of WPI Ulkuhan Guler, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI

The National Institutes of Health have awarded $1.1 million to a Worcester Polytechnic Institute-led research project aimed at reducing racial bias in care for premature infants. 

The project intends to develop a wearable sensor for premature infants to monitor oxygen levels in two ways, according to a Monday press release from WPI. The monitors will correct for variation in skin tones to report accurate results. 

Multiple previous studies have shown non-white premature infants receive incorrect oxygen saturation numbers for the use of a standard pulse oximeter. 

WPI Associate Professor Ulkuhan Guler is the lead researcher on the project. Co-investigators are Dr. Lawrence Rhein, UMass Chan Medical School associate professor and chair of the department of pediatrics at UMass Memorial Health in Worcester, and Bige Unluturk, assistant professor at Michigan State University.

“Premature infants are at risk of respiratory distress, and oxygen monitoring is critical to their care so that they can leave hospitals and go home,” Guler said in the press release. “Some tools widely used at home to monitor oxygenation, however, do not accurately measure oxygen levels in infants with pigmented skin tones. There is a great need for new technology that mitigates the impact of racial bias in measurements and provides important information to the clinicians who are treating these infants.”

The research grant is slotted for a four-year period to develop the sensor, which should allow premature infants to leave the hospital with their families sooner and be accurately monitored at home, according to the release. The device will be a wireless patch, and it will use light to monitor blood oxygen levels to sense oxygen gas diffusing and oxygen saturation in hemoglobin.

The sensor will transmit data to a monitor hub, which will be equipped with bias-mitigating software. It will be tested on adults and infants in clinical settings as a pilot.

In 2022, Guler developed sensors for patients with respiratory illnesses with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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