Medical Device Daily National Editor

In the early years of the 20th century, Charles Proteus Steinmetz had some big ideas and some big ways for showcasing them.

Though deformed and afflicted with dwarfism, he was sometimes called, in protean fashion, the "Forger of thunderbolts" for one of his projects. Inside a football-sized laboratory, he placed high towers, outfitted with 120,000-volt generators, and used this big hardware to produce – shazam! – huge flashes of light: artificial lightning.

One of his considerably less flashy ideas (we can't keep from saying), but rather more essential to modern life, was his work in the development of alternating current, thus laying the foundation for the electronic motor industry and long-distance transmission of electricity.

Steinmetz developed many of his far-reaching ideas as a world-renowned scientist, and the best-known figure working at GE Global Research (GEGR; Niskayuna, New York), the technology development arm of General Electric (Fairfield, Connecticut), the research center that continues to break new ground for commercialization of new technologies by its parent company and others.

Importantly is the breadth of GEGR's reach, with 2,800 researchers at the Niskayuna facility, plus locations in Bangalore, India; Munich, Germany; and Shanghai working in a broad variety of disciplines to develop early ideas translatable to mature products, or to take well-developed ideas into new configurations or to new applications.

Considerably less flashy than Steinmetz's artificial lightning experiments but certainly with much more obvious benefits is GEGR's recent report that its scientists have transformed a commercially available GE sensor for home security into an intelligent wireless medical sensing platform usable in high-risk clinical settings.

The original goal for the motion sensor project, however, was to adapt the technology, a motion sensor product in GE's Precision line, to applications for correctional surveillance. This application is being pursued with the support of a grant from the Sensors and Surveillance Group of the National Institute of Justice (Washington), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jeffrey Ashe, an electrical engineer at GEGR, said that discussions with other GEGR researchers pursuing medical technologies then sparked the idea for potential uses in healthcare.

Ashe, principal investigator for the project, told Medical Device Daily that there was little need to do much alteration of the system's hardware and that the basic work was to discover the appropriate algorithms for a wireless sensor. He said that the signal processing technique developed by his group is able to classify different types of motion and do it so specifically that it can monitor a person's breathing and heart rate.

"We have essentially built a more sophisticated brain for an existing GE sensor that can tell whether someone is moving or motionless and whether an individual is breathing or not breathing," Ashe said.

He added: "One of the most promising applications of this new technology could be in neonatal infant health monitoring. We have seen considerable interest from the medical community in having this type of wireless sensing capability to monitor the well-being of infants under intensive care."

The wireless feature of the sensor is one of its key benefits, the researchers note, making it particularly appropriate for this application since premature infants have very sensitive and fragile skin. This makes it difficult to directly attach sensors to them.

Such a technology clearly addresses sudden infant death syndrome and offers a method for avoiding it.

Similarly, this sensor could be installed in a home for elder care or other outpatient monitoring.

Ashe told MDD that GEGR's health group is currently talking to GE and other device developers interested in the neonatal application.

GE's wireless sensing research is part of the company's Early Health initiative, focused on enabling earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments of disease and other health-related issues.

GEGR says, "The hope is to spot symptoms or potential problems at earlier stages, perhaps even before the patient realizes a health issue exists."

Among other recent initiatives in the healthcare sector, by GEGR scientists:

A two-year, $1.1 million collaboration with the Transformational Medical Technologies Initiative to develop a "virtual human," dubbed the Biotic Man. GEGR researchers are designing a computer model intended to speed drug design in response to the threat of biological attacks on the battlefield or in domestic situations. Called a Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic software tool, the system will use computational models to measure a drug's response in the body before a clinical trial would. The collaboration is supported by a contract by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Development of a Hospital Operations Early Warning System, working in concert with GE's AgileTrac system. GEGR researchers compare it to GPS technology to help hospitals forecast potential bed or staff shortages before they occur and suggest actions that could mitigate these problems in advance. This video discusses some of this technology and how GE is working to develop "Hospitals of the Future."

Development of technology enabling an MR scanner to automatically image the heart with the specific views that are required by the physician, with minimal operator intervention. The GEGR researchers say that with this system an operator would only have to press a button on the screen and the scanner would automatically find the correct views and acquire the images, within to minutes after the examination begins." This technology would specifically provide a benefit to smaller clinics that wouldn't ordinarily a great deal of cardiovascular expertise.

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