NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — Neonatal mortality is a persistent and widespread global health challenge. Every year, more than 1.5 million newborns die from various lung deficiencies within the first 28 days of life. Almost all of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries where the treatment of respiratory-related complications is severely limited. PremieBreathe, a startup created by Yale students, has taken up this challenge.
PremieBreathe developed a low-cost, top-of-the-line infant respirator that delivers warmed, humidified and oxygenated air to reduce breathing difficulties in infants who cannot breathe normally. This respiratory therapy technology will significantly save lives at birth, reducing newborn death in many low-income countries. The team believed that designing the prototype was a constant evolutionary process. “We were continually building and improving upon our design, figuring out how to deploy it in a low-resource setting where hospitals may have limited access to water, air and electricity.”
One essential target of the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations (U.N.) is to end preventable deaths of newborns by 2030, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births. In order to save lives at birth, more affordable and functional infant breathing aid must be developed.
The PremieBreathe team believed that designing the prototype was a constant evolutionary process. “We were continually building and improving upon our design, figuring out how to deploy it in a low-resource setting where hospitals may have limited access to water, air and electricity.”
After doing many experiments, PremieBreathe’s respiratory device, a Humidified High Flow Nasal Cannula (HHFNC), is able to mimic the conditions found in the infant’s esophagus and respiratory tract, with the air humidified to around 90 percent and warmed to approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This therapy technology can significantly increase the survival rate of premature babies.
In August, PremieBreathe was awarded a $250,000 grant from the USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth partnership. The grant will help support preparation of the device for clinical testing in Ayder Referral Hospital in the Tigray region of Ethiopia early next year.
Ethiopia has one of the highest neonatal mortality rates in the world, where 84,000 newborn infants die each year, accounting for 30 percent of annual deaths. When Katy Chan, CEO and full-time lead for Premie Breathe, visited Ethiopia in 2015, she was so shocked that doctors treated infants with devices cobbled with old tubing and soda cans that delivered oxygen.
Chan and her team spent two years modifying their prototype so that it would accommodate the economic and environmental constraints in local hospitals. The new design can operate independently of traditional clinical structure while retailing for only one-fifth the cost of respiratory systems in the United States.
PremieBreathe is expected to prevent up to 880 deaths a year in the Tigray region, and ultimately save thousands of newborn lives around the world.
The Saving Lives at Birth partnership was launched in 2011 to foster groundbreaking, scalable solutions to end infant and maternal mortality around the time of birth. It has invested more than $3.4 million in transformational solutions, some reaching the poorest, most remote communities in the world.
– Yvie Yao