Sanna Gaspard: High-Tech Healer

Using automated physiotherapy to help premature babies

8 September 2010
san Photo: Carnegie Mellon University

As an undergrad at the University of Miami, Sanna Gaspard was deciding between a career in medicine and bioengineering when she took an internship at a nearby hospital to assist researchers performing clinical experiments on the effects of massage on premature babies. In the end, she chose bioengineering, but her summer internship left a lasting impression. Now an IEEE graduate student member, Gaspard is developing a device that might significantly influence neonatal care.

Her Neonatal Automated Physiotherapy (NAP) device mimics a manual infant massage by cradling the baby against a padded support, which covers a mechanical system that provides gentle tactile stimulation. The NAP device is designed to produce the same health benefits as manual massage, which include a strengthened immune system, increased weight gain, and improved circulation, behavior, and digestion—all of which can help boost a premature infant's survival rate. The device, which can be timed to work with a baby's feeding and sleeping schedules, allows hospitals to implement infant massage by automating a labor- and cost-intensive procedure.

Gaspard's neonatal device and her research in bedsore diagnosis landed her on the U.S. National Engineers Week Foundation's 13 New Faces of Engineering list for 2010. The program highlights the vitality, diversity, and contributions of engineers younger than 30. The foundation is a coalition of companies, government agencies, and engineering associations, including IEEE-USA.

Now a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Gaspard, 28, is continuing to follow her passion for medical technology. In addition to perfecting the NAP prototype, she is developing an early bedsore diagnostic device, the Rubitect, which uses LED emission and reflection to detect the early breakdown of skin that heralds pressure-ulcer formation.

Gaspard has filed for patents on both concepts and founded companies to commercialize the products: TLneoCare for the NAP device, launched in 2007, and Rubitection for the Rubitect, earlier this year. She's seeking investors and strategic partners to help manufacture both products.

"It takes a few years to commercialize a medical device," she says. "It's not like a retail product that you can turn around in a year. You need to do clinical trials and get [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] approval before going to market. What keeps me excited is the really enthusiastic feedback from doctors and clinicians who'd like to test both technologies in their hospitals."

Born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Gaspard grew up in Orlando, Fla., where as a child she showed an affinity for science, math, and taking things apart to see how they worked. She went on to major in biomedical engineering and minor in electrical engineering at the University of Miami.

Despite her engineering focus, she was seriously considering a career in medicine as a neonatologist. In 2003, the summer between her junior and senior years, she tested the waters by interning in the neonatal intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Part of her duties included collecting data on the physiological response of infants to massage, used on both preterm low-birth-weight and full-term healthy babies.

"I noticed how difficult it was to implement manual infant massage effectively," she recalls. "It has to be done three times a day around the babies' eating and sleeping schedules. It seemed impractical and costly, since the hospital needs to hire certified nurses. I thought automating the process would encourage hospitals to adopt the therapy to improve the babies' health and reduce costs, since massaged infants are typically released from the hospital up to six days sooner than nonmassaged infants."

Gaspard worked on a rudimentary NAP prototype for her senior-year design project, which used off-the-shelf motors, timers, cams, and pulleys housed under a neonatal mattress outfitted with bumper supports to cradle the infant. She tested the device on dolls and is currently working on a next-generation prototype.

The idea for the Rubitect came early in her doctoral research in 2006, after she learned about the prevalence of debilitating bedsores and the difficulties in diagnosing them early. Current diagnostic techniques rely on observing how quickly a reddened skin lesion whitens with gentle finger pressure—which is difficult to see on dark skin. The handheld Rubitect shines light onto the skin and detects changes in the tissue by analyzing the attenuation of the reflected light.

Gaspard joined IEEE while in graduate school and is a member of the IEEE Circuits and Systems, Engineering in Medicine and Biology, and Instrumentation and Measurement societies, as well as IEEE Women in Engineering.

She has managed to combine the best of the two fields she once had such a tough time deciding between. "At the hospital internship, I liked what I was doing, but I didn't like the lifestyle," she says. "It could be extremely hectic, with long work hours and little family time. Plus, I'm a bit germophobic, so I thought that maybe this wasn't the best path for me. However, I really like engineering—and I can still make an impact in medicine by coming up with technological solutions to medical problems."

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