RELEASE NO. 02-014
NASA helps fetal hearts beat loud and clear
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
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 that 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.
Bakers 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
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
"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'
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.
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