Press Release

NASA Helps Fetal Hearts Beat Loud and Clear

By SpaceRef Editor
February 21, 2002
Filed under ,

February is American Heart Month, and by keeping track of
some very small American hearts with a new, portable fetal
heart monitor, NASA technology is relieving some of the worry
of high-risk pregnancies.

Researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.,
worked with Baby Beats Inc., and Washington State University’s
Small Business Development Center — both based in Spokane —
to transfer and develop aerospace technology originally
created to better understand airflow over airplane wings into
a portable, non-invasive, easy-to-use fetal heart monitor.

“Because the material we used for wing-surface measurements is
flexible, it’s ideally suited to fit over the curved surface
of a maternal abdomen for fetal testing,” said Allan Zuckerwar
of Langley’s Advanced Measurement and Diagnostics Branch.

Current fetal heart-monitoring devices generally work well but
cost many thousands of dollars and most can only be used in a
clinic or doctor’s office. NASA developed the portable
technology by responding to a request for assistance from Dr.
Donald Baker, a physician whose practice includes remote areas
where appropriate health care is difficult to obtain. For
several reasons, when expectant mothers do not receive
necessary prenatal care, the result is often increased fetal
mortality.

In its present form, an at-home patient would place the
saucer-shaped monitor on her belly and tune a computerized
control device to hear the fetal heartbeat. She would then
adjust for the strongest signal, which can be transmitted
directly to the doctor’s office over her phone line.

Baby Beats Inc., Dr. Baker’s newly formed company, plans to
begin manufacturing and marketing the monitor in the next
several months. Patients of Glendale Adventist Hospital in Los
Angeles will use the monitor first.

Baker’s concern for tiny hearts began more than 25 years ago
when the need for a portable heart rate monitor first occurred
to him during obstetrics rounds in medical school. He watched
as an unborn baby’s heart rate, monitored by a fetal heart
monitor strapped to the mother’s belly, suddenly became
dangerously irregular. A nurse hurried over and turned the
pregnant woman on her side. The baby was inadvertently sitting
on its own umbilical cord, choking itself, the nurse
explained.

“I was just shocked, absolutely shocked,” said Baker. “I knew
we needed to create a way for mothers to take the monitor home
with them.”

Today, Baker envisions mothers with high-risk pregnancies and
those who have trouble traveling to a doctor’s office as the
primary users of the monitor. His commitment to the need
heightened after working as a family doctor in the Flathead
Indian Reservation in Montana early in his career. Baker, a
member of the Minnesota Chippewa, said pregnant mothers living
in remote areas might be hours from a doctor’s office and may
not have the financial resources to get there. But inner city
mothers who have difficulty making it to a clinic could use it
too, he says. In fact, most women with high-risk pregnancies
could benefit from the monitor.

“Whether they are rich or poor, mothers love their babies,”
the Spokane physician said. “They want to take care of their
baby but, when they are hours away from health care, it’s very
hard. This helps dignify health care and puts control in the
parents’ hands.”

Baker secured a license from NASA, which shares space-age
technology with the business world, to develop an affordable,
practical way to manufacture the monitor. And, Baker said, it
is as easy to use as tuning a radio.

SpaceRef staff editor.