Vest for determining asthma triggers

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
July 17, 2008 4:02:32 PM PDT
It can be challenging to figure out what exactly triggers an asthma attack in someone. But a new tool is helping doctors narrow it down.An asthma attack can come on seemingly for no reason. But the reality is that there are probably minute particles or gases which people can't notice, but which can set off an attack. One challenge a group of researchers has taken on is to try to find a way to detect what those triggers are. If people knew the trigger was around and could prevent an attack, it would be a great step forward.

Childhood asthma attacks are frightening events that can turn tragic. Even more frustrating is that doctors can only guess if something in the air might have been the trigger.

"What we wanted to do is to develop a personal exposure monitor that children could wear, or adults," said Charlene Bayer, of the Georgia Tech Research Institute. "But primarily children could wear 24 hours a day or have near them 24 hours a day so that we could measure their exposures."

To do that, Bayer and her team have developed a vest that monitors for many of the natural or manmade triggers that can turn playtime into quiet time. Bayer says the key challenge was having everything work as one.

"The real engineering feat, I think, is getting all of those sensors to actually work together in a single box," she said.

They put the vest through its paces in a special chamber, where Bayer could pump in specific amounts of compounds that might trigger asthma and see how the vest's sensors responded.

Additionally, they had adults wear the vest for three days. One volunteer even got a real-world pollution warning.

"And by the vest, we were able to figure out that he had compounds coming, fuel exhaust, coming in from his car up in to the occupied areas of the house," Bayer said.

The vest is fully padded, making it both safe for children and safe from a child's curiosity. It will hopefully give children with asthma the chance again to be active children.

The vest is not yet ready for public wear. First, the researchers need to take the next step, to make the sensors both more sensitive and able to detect other allergy triggers. Then, they must do more testing with human subjects.