Dr. Doug Campbell
Director, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
Dr. Jennifer Beck
On a warm spring evening in 2015, Drs. Doug Campbell and Jennifer Beck stood in front of several hundred people and made their pitch for a life-changing intervention on behalf of the world’s tiniest patients.
The pitch was for NeoVest, a gentler, safer and more effective version of the old iron lung. NeoVest is designed for babies with breathing problems.
As director of St. Michael’s NICU, Dr. Campbell takes care of sick babies every day. Dr. Beck is an expert in respiratory physiology and an internationally renowned researcher at St. Michael’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science.
Their goal that night was to win over a panel of judges at St. Michael’s Foundation’s Angels Den, a competition that has scientists battling for research funding. At stake was at least $50,000.
Dr. Campbell was first up. “Here is the problem,” he told the judges. “Up to 10 per cent of all babies are admitted to the intensive care unit. And the biggest obstacle they face is breathing: lung disease, premature lung development, lung infection and water in the lungs.”
These babies, he said, end up with tubes down their throats and masks sealed over their noses. A mechanical ventilator breathes for them. The tubes and masks often leave infants with deformed noses. The wires and machinery mean their mothers can’t hold or breastfeed them. And the ventilator’s forced breath is unlikely to mimic their own rhythm, making each inhale uncomfortable and unnatural.
“So this is our solution,” said Dr. Beck, stepping up to the microphone. “Let me introduce you to the NeoVest.”
NeoVest, she explained, does away with the tubes and wires. Instead, the baby wears a vest that surrounds the abdomen. Negative pressure inside the vest creates a vacuum which gently pulls on the baby’s belly. This in turn draws air into the lungs, in a natural rhythm.
Working with her research and life partner Dr. Christer Synderby, Dr. Beck came up with an elegant solution. A sensor attached to the baby’s feeding tube picks up breathing signals, which synchronize the NeoVest to the baby’s natural rhythm.
The judges couldn’t resist. Drs. Beck and Campbell got their funding. Starting in early 2019, St. Michael’s will launch a pilot study of NeoVest to demonstrate its feasibility.
“From idea to a product in under two years is incredible. From idea to clinical testing in three years is extraordinary,” says Dr. Campbell. “We are truly blessed to work at St. Michael’s and are excited about the next stage in revolutionizing breathing care for babies.”