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LifeVest was born to help babies

Toronto, August 30, 2016

By Geoff Koehler

Drs. Doug Campbell and Jennifer Beck
Drs. Doug Campbell and Jennifer Beck present LifeVest at the Global Healthcare Innovation Academy’s international competition in Calgary. (Photo by Chris Gee)

LifeVest, a technology being developed at St. Michael’s Hospital to help newborn infants breathe, won the Global Healthcare Innovation Academy’s international competition in Calgary.

Global Healthcare Innovation Academy brought together innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, and industry for its scientific and business innovation competition. The projects involved were recognized for cultural, scientific, technological, and/or social impact.

Premature infants have underdeveloped lungs and weak respiratory muscles, while other newborns may have pneumonia or other lung diseases. Because of such challenges, premature newborns or full-term babies with breathing difficulties may require specialized hospital care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

“For such critically ill newborns, breathing support with a mechanical ventilator is a life-saving treatment,” said Dr. Doug Campbell, director of St. Michael’s NICU. “But existing mechanical ventilation leaves much to be desired. Nasal devices can cause skin breakdown and permanent damage to infants’ noses. Current devices and ventilation techniques are imperfect and can interfere with breastfeeding and hinder parent-infant bonding.”

Dr. Campbell’s LifeVest pitch partner, Dr. Jennifer Beck, is with the hospital’s Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science. She’s part of a St. Michael’s research group that developed and commercialized neurally adjusted ventilator assist (NAVA). The group continues to develop technologies for mechanical ventilators, including LifeVest.

“In healthy people, the brain sends a signal to the diaphragm, telling the muscles to contract and relax—breathing,” said Dr. Beck. “For critically ill patients, the brain still sends the signal but the body is not able to properly perform the request.”

With NAVA technology, electrodes on the patient’s feeding tube pick up the brain’s signal to the diaphragm and tell the ventilator when and how much to breathe for the patient.

An infant would wear a vest (similar to a life jacket), and the ventilator triggered by the NAVA signal would pull gently on the chest by applying negative pressure. This would greatly assist the infant’s breathing. Dr. Beck said the concept has similarities to the old-fashioned iron lung, but the LifeVest is much easier to use. As well the materials will be lightweight and suitable for babies’ sensitive skin.

Fourteen innovators and start-up entrepreneurs competed for the Global Healthcare Innovation Academy’s $25,000 top prize. Each team presented a scientific pitch and six projects advanced to the competition’s second day to deliver a business pitch.

LifeVest was selected by the panel of judges based on criteria which included market opportunity and competitive advantage, problem and solution fit, and team and leadership. These judges came from a diverse portfolio of international expertise ranging from research and innovation agencies, to respected entrepreneurs and industry leaders.

LifeVest was born out of a research competition put on by St. Michael’s Foundation. Since 2015, St. Michael’s has run an Angels’ Den competition where teams pairing a researcher and clinician have competed for research funds. LifeVest won St. Michael’s 2015 Angels’ Den contest. MaRS Innovation provided business pitch support to LifeVest and the two 2016 Angels’ Den finalists who also competed at this year’s Global Healthcare Innovation Academy:

“We’re thrilled for Jennifer and Doug,” said Dr. Arthur Slutsky, vice-president of Research for St. Michael’s. “All three St. Michael’s teams represented the hospital well against stiff international competition. Each innovative project is a testament to the calibre of the research taking place in St. Michael’s labs and clinics, as well as the support of our Foundation through the Angel’s Den events.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.