Researchers in Northern Ireland are hoping to use CCTV technology to develop a mobile device which will help save babies’ lives.
The project, which is being carried out in conjunction with local obstetricians and surveillance experts from Queen’s and the University of Ulster, is believed to be the first in the world to attempt to use pattern-recognition software to analyse a foetus.
The team hopes to harness the skills and technology used in security surveillance systems to build up a picture of how babies move in the womb as they develop. It is hoped this information will then be used to develop a high-tech foetal monitor to detect any unusual changes and movements of a baby during the latter stage of pregnancy in order to prevent a stillbirth. It is estimated around 4,000 babies are stillborn each year in the UK.
According to experts, bereaved mothers often report that their baby’s activity decreased in the days leading up to the stillbirth.
Project leader Dr Stephen Ong, who is a consultant at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast, explained the ultimate aim of the device would be to help save a baby’s life and prevent the heartbreak suffered by mothers when their child is stillborn.
“At the moment we don’t have 24 hour surveillance,” he explained. “If we are concerned about a baby we use ultrasounds to check on its condition, but this only occurs once every two weeks. If we are really worried we may do this once a week.
“What we hope to do is develop a system where a baby can be monitored almost 24 hours a day.
“The system is at the every early stages but what we hope to do is attach a probe to the mother which would automatically scan the baby, say about four or five times a day, and this would be relayed by WiFi back to the hospital.
“The idea behind this is that if there is something wrong then we could act. An alert would be sent and we would most likely deliver the baby.”
Currently the research team, which received a £55,571 grant from Action Medical Research to develop the software, is in the early stages of the project.
So far they have been taking one-minute long ultrasound scans of around 100 healthy women, who are five to six months pregnant, and recording what they see on DVD. Once this stage has been completed, surveillance experts will then analyse the babies’ movements using computer programs similar to ones used for analysing CCTV footage or recognising a person’s voice or face in high security installations.
It is then hoped the mobile device can be made which can be attached to a pregnant woman and transmit data wirelessly to a computer in the hospital where doctors, midwives or nurses would be alerted to any problems. It has been estimated it may take up to 10 years to develop the device.
Dr Joan Condell, who is a specialist in analysing movement from the University of Ulster, explained she had great hopes for the project both professionally and personally.
“I did a PHD in detecting movement in images and up to now our work has been very technical and computer-based,” she said. “However the principles of detecting people moving inside buildings and in car parks on CCTV also applies to babies in the womb. I had a stillbirth myself so I am very interested in this project personally and really looking forward to seeing the results.”
Dr Fatih Kurugollu, an experienced software engineer who has worked extensively on security surveillance systems and is based at Queen’s University, Belfast said she too was looking forward to working on the project.
“This is a unique opportunity to apply our skills and technical knowledge to the research being carried out by Dr Ong,” she said.
Dr Yolande Harley, deputy director of Research for Action Medical Research, said: “This unusual collaboration between a maternity hospital and IT experts is a very exciting project which has the potential to make a big difference to women whose babies are at risk of being stillborn.”