A computer simulation, designed by an AUT doctoral student, is helping to save the lives of premature babies with breathing problems.

Prasika Manilal’s model gained recognition at this year’s MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year awards, where MS Manilal was the runner-up in the biotechnology division.

Now, she is looking ahead to apply her research to older patients.

The 26-year-old mechanical engineering student at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) designed the computer model to test Fisher & Paykel Healthcare’s bubble CPAP system as part of her master’s project “Engineered to perfection – from breathless to breathtaking” last year

The bubble CPAP system helps premature babies suffering respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) to breathe without the use of mechanical ventilation.

Premature babies often suffer RDS as their lungs are undeveloped at birth and lack essential lubrication.

CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure, and the system works by passing infants’ breath through water to create backpressure, helping the baby to breathe.

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare’s product development manager, Martin Leckie, says bubble CPAP is better than ventilation, as it provides only enough pressure to inflate infants’ lungs and does not force them to breathe, which can result in permanent damage to the lungs. Fisher & Paykel Healthcare is the only company in the world to commercially produce a complete bubble CPAP system. The therapy was first developed in 1974 in the USA.

Ms. Manilal created the computer simulation of a neo-natal (premature) lung to test how a lung would respond to the bubble CPAP system and to provide mathematical proof that the Fisher & Paykel system is better than mechanical ventilation. The Fisher & Paykel system is unique because it uses bubbles to create pressure oscillation, which causes vibration in the lungs.

“Vibration relaxes the lung – like a massage,” explains Ms. Manilal.

Ms. Manilal is undertaking the first year of her PhD at the Diagnostics and Control Research Centre of AUT under the supervision of Professor Al-Jumaily, whilst continuing her research for Fisher & Paykel Healthcare.

She is aiming to develop a computer simulation that can predict a lung’s response to treatment so accurately it will replace the need for human trials or animal testing.

She refers to her master’s project as a “rough model” and says her PhD research will create a more detailed, exact simulation.

She also hopes to extend the model to monitor the response of any-aged lungs rather than just neo-natal lungs.

This fits in with Fisher & Paykel’s production aims, where the product development team is working on expanding the bubble CPAP system for use on older children.

Product manager Milerosa Singson says they have recently developed a larger interface component which allows the system to be used on babies up to the age of two.

This development has expanded the range of conditions the system can be used to treat, to include asthma and bronchitis in small children.

The Fisher & Paykel system was launched in 2000 and is used in most hospitals throughout New Zealand.

After significant local success, Fisher & Paykel started exporting the product globally in 2003 and has since doubled production.

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