UF, Engineering Co. Working to Prevent High Blood Pressure Deaths in Africa

by April Frawley Birdwell

Mothers-to-be in Africa are three times more likely than women in the United States to develop the high blood pressure disorder preeclampsia, and even more likely to die from it.

Now, University of Florida researchers and a Gainesville-based engineering firm have received a $250,000 grant to develop an easily transportable tool that could efficiently detect the warning signs of preeclampsia and help women in developing countries get the care they need.

“In the U.S., preeclampsia affects 5 percent of patients,” said Tammy Y. Euliano, M.D., a UF associate professor of anesthesia and the chief of obstetric anesthesia for UF Health Shands Hospital. “In Africa, it affects 15 percent of women. The only cure for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby, but even when they do deliver the babies early (in Africa), the babies often die because clinics are not set up to take care of premature babies.”

UF researchers and the company Convergent Engineering were one of 1,500 applicants for the Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenges grant, and one of only 18 to actually receive funding. The program is conducted in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grand Challenges Canada and the U.K. Department for International Development. The goal of the funding is to find novel ways to reduce the death rates of mothers and babies in developing countries.

With the funding, Euliano, along with Jose Principe, Ph.D., in the UF College of Engineering and colleagues at Convergent Engineering, have developed a two-pronged approach to tackling the problem.

First, they began collecting data from pregnant women to discover if there are warning signs of preeclampsia that occur before the condition actually develops. To do this, they are collecting data from pulse oximetry tests — which measure oxygen saturation and blood flow — and EKG testing — which measures electrical activity inside the heart.

“The data we have so far are very promising,” Euliano said. “It looks like we are able to predict with 85 percent accuracy who is going to get preeclampsia and who isn’t, which is better than any test we have now.”

But to make this testing cost-effective and easy for health workers to administer, the researchers decided they needed to develop a smaller version of the device that could be used quickly on many patients.

Engineers are developing a wrist strap that not only measures a patient’s oxygen saturation but also collects the same heart rate information as an EKG. EKG testing typically involves tiny electrodes being taped across the chest and hooked to a large machine.

The device UF researchers and Convergent Engineering experts are developing would cost just $50 to make.

“You could collect data from hundreds of women a day for less than a penny,” Euliano said.

After the data are collected, the information will be sent to health workers’ phones, advising them whether patients are high risk. For those who are at high risk, health workers will be able to follow up, and, if necessary, ensure they get to a hospital to deliver their babies.

The project will last 18 months, and if the results are promising, the researchers will be eligible to apply for an additional grant to test the device in Africa.

“We have the potential to save thousands of lives if we get these women the care they need,” Euliano said.

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