Thanks to the work of an enterprising Highlands University graduate student, young sufferers of cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease, today have reason to hope for a better future.
Rianne Trujillo, a student in Highland’s software system design program, collaborated with a laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop an automated cough monitor for children afflicted with the disease.
Cystic fibrosis affects the lungs, digestive system and sweat glands. Its name stems from fibrous scar tissue that develops in the pancreas, a main target. It affects the ability to move salt and water in and out of cells, causing the lungs and pancreas to secrete abnormally thick mucus that blocks passageways. When that mucus blocks the airways to the lungs, it can be deadly. Persistent cough is a chief symptom.
Trujillo, 26, a native of Las Vegas, N.M., who lives in Albuquerque, developed the prototype of the monitor. She will be travelling to MIT next month to present the device to her “client,” the MIT laboratory.
“Anyone can build it,” said the young woman, who has no familial ties to cystic fibrosis.
Her prototype is a cuff designed to be worn by children. Its electronic components cost less than $50. The three primary components are an open-source microcontroller that programs data, an accelerometer or motion detector and a microphone. Trujillo figured out which components would work best together.
Not only could the device alert parents to a coughing spasm, but also, eventually, provide physicians with data to help them come up with the correct medical response.
“The initial concept is to have a device that is wearable by kids and for parents to keep track of data, so that they and doctors can determine the best treatment,” Trujillo said. “The next version will record the data. Now, we’re just tracking in real time; it’s not stored. The next version will include a card or app.”
“Rianne’s ability to marry the physical computing with the needs of the patient were outstanding,” said José Gómez-Márquez, a medical device designer who directs the MIT Little Devices Lab. “The notion to include multiple sensors created a fail-safe pathway for detection and patient monitoring.”
One goal of the lab is to “democratize” medical technologies, Gómez-Márquez said. “Devices like Rianne’s will inspire our students to know that we can get there one step at a time, one device at a time.”
The next phase of development will likely be a patch worn on the child’s body, said Trujillo, who earned a BFA degree in media arts at Highlands in 2011. On Monday, she is scheduled to defend her master’s thesis in software system design.
It was her academic adviser, media arts professor Miriam Langer, who put her in contact with MIT.
Langer called Trujillo an exceptionally creative, thoughtful and methodical developer.
“Rapid prototyping like Rianne accomplished requires a very creative approach to problem-solving,” Langer said.
Gómez-Márquez first contacted Langer in September to see if she could recommend a student who could develop the cough monitor. Langer’s immediate choice was Trujillo.
“When they came back three weeks later with a prototype that was not only functioning, but also generating smart data, I was blown away,” Gómez-Márquez said.
His Little Devices Lab routinely collaborates with Ivy League universities – Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth – but Highlands is the first school it has worked with in the western United States.
“I’m looking forward to further collaborations,” he said.