Scientists at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, have created the world’s first Sneezeometer — an airflow sensor or spirometer device sufficiently sensitive to measure the speed of a sneeze — something the Surrey developers say no other commercially available system can do as inexpensively or effectively.
They observed that with more than 18 million Americans suffering from asthma; 10 percent of U.S. children diagnosed with the disease; 1 in 12 people in the United Kingdom currently receiving asthma treatment; and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which affects 3 to 5 percent of adult men and 2 to 5 percent of adult women, the Sneezometer has major potential for widespread use in respiratory diagnostic medicine. The device is twice as fast as other devices, researchers said.
The Sneezeometer is currently in clinical trials at King’s College Hospital in London, and researchers said if trials and approvals go well, it could be available for clinical use in two years.
Spirometers, which measure the airflow rate through a patient’s lungs, are already used extensively to measure lung capacity as an aid to diagnose a range of chronic and acute respiratory conditions, including asthma, OSA, and hypopnoea.
But the Surrey researchers said that currently available devices are expensive, cumbersome, and lack the degree of sensitivity required in difficult diagnostic situations, such as neonatal care.
In contrast, Surrey’s Sneezometer, where the patient breathes through a fist-size instrument, is fast and sensitive enough to pick up tiny fluctuations in breath flow rate, which may be associated with a disease condition.
Market analysis already carried out by the South East Health Technologies Alliance (SEHTA) — one of the largest healthcare technology networking organizations in the U.K. — has confirmed that the spirometer is two orders of magnitude more sensitive than, and has four times the resolution of, any other device currently on the market. Because no equivalently fast and sensitive instrument has yet been available, investigators are still exploring the Sneezometer’s diagnostic capabilities.
Diagnosing Debilitating Respiratory Illnesses Simply
Dr. David Birch, lead investigator of the Surrey Fluid Sensor Development Initiative at the University of Surrey’s Aerodynamics and Environmental Flow research group, said in a press release: “Breathing disorders are highly prevalent in both the developed and developing world. In the USA, asthma alone costs $56 million a year and the human cost is high, too — about nine deaths every day. The diagnosis and monitoring of respiratory diseases is key to proper treatment, and we have now developed a simple, low-cost and non-intrusive diagnostic solution that will make doctors’ lives easier across the world.”
The Surrey Fluid Sensor Development Initiative is unique in being able to develop prototype sensor systems in any configuration, using techniques including 3D printing, within very short turnaround times, generally measured in weeks.
Part of the Surrey Fluid Sensor Development Initiative is led by Sneezeometer co-inventor Dr. Paul Nathan, who draw on decades of experience designing and managing fully-automated experimental measurement systems for the NCAS EnFlo national laboratory.
“We have created a portable, highly sensitive and accurate spirometer that can catch the speed of a sneeze,” Nathan said. “What’s almost as impressive is that we created this innovative device using simple 3D printing technology, with all of the prototypes ‘printed’ around the internal electronics.”
A Portable Device to Combat Effects of Pollution
“Respiratory diseases are especially prevalent in developing cities such as Delhi and Beijing, where air quality is a big concern. Air pollution was recently placed in the top 10 health risks faced by human beings globally, with the World Health Organization linking air pollution to 7 million premature deaths every year,” said University of Surrey Reader and former senior lecturer Dr. Prashant Kumar. “The availability of an inexpensive and portable diagnostic device such as this will assist in such diseases being diagnosed and treated at earlier stages.”
Kumar is an executive editor for the Journal of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and his principal research focus is to understand the impact of both conventional and emerging air pollutants from transport, industrial and non-vehicle sources on air quality, public health, and infrastructure, in order to develop engineering-driven solutions and regulatory strategies for their mitigation.
The Sneezometer, in clinical trials, is being used to help diagnose conditions ranging from neonatal settings through animal diseases at King’s College Hospital.
“The ability to measure the sensitivity of airflow detection and pull out other information from a single breath is very interesting from both a research and clinical perspective,” said Dr. Manasi Nandi, senior lecturer in integrative pharmacology at King’s College London. “This is currently not picked out with conventional tests, and we have already been using it to mimic testing of asthma.”
“From our expertise in wind-tunnel measurement we have translated fundamental research into an incredibly beneficial technology that will have real impact on the lives of patients with chronic illnesses and will make diagnosis faster, cheaper and more accurate,” Birch said. He noted that the spirometer may have other uses such as neonatal infant monitoring and training of elite athletes, and since it is believed to be the most sensitive flow meter, the technology could also have applications outside of spirometry.