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May 19, 2011

Noninvasive baby reflux monitor among funded MSU innovations

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Acid reflux is a painful nuisance for most who suffer symptoms such as heartburn, but it can lead to pneumonia and worse for infants. Just detecting it – often by inserting a tube through the nose into the esophagus – can be traumatic.

But Michigan State University neonatologist Ira Gewolb is testing a far less invasive diagnostic method he developed for babies, supported by a university technology commercialization partnership.

Preemies and their parents are accustomed to invasive procedures, Gewolb said, “but if you try to put a tube down a one-and-a-half-year-old’s nose for 24 hours, it’s not a pretty picture.” X-rays often are used instead, he added, but aren’t always reliable.

Gewolb and laboratory associate Frank Vice are refining a prototype for a neonatal gastroesophageal reflux monitor based on a common engineering instrument, the accelerometer. Taped to an infant’s chest, it picks up low-frequency sound as reflux backs up from the stomach into the esophagus.

More than half of newborns suffer from acid reflux, ranging in severity “from the happy spitters to the scrawny screamers” who resist feeding, Gewolb said, but the vast majority outgrow it after they start to sit up. Ex-preemies are especially susceptible, however, and often go home with medications that themselves have side effects. He hopes the monitor, being tested currently at Sparrow Hospital’s neonatology unit, ultimately can be approved for use in preemies as well as older infants and even certain adults.

Gewolb, chief of the Division of Neonatology in the MSU College of Human Medicine, is one of seven MSU faculty inventors winning technology transfer grants this year from the Michigan Initiative for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and a predecessor program.

The grants are meant to help bridge the difficult financial chasm separating campus lab developments from their commercialization. MIIE includes Michigan’s 15 state universities with funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation, the New Enterprise Initiative for Southeast Michigan and the Dow Foundation.

“Federal funding of research enables the development of basic science concepts, but there is often a gap in funding as the science becomes more applied or product oriented,” said Charles A. Hasemann, interim technology transfer office chief and executive director of MSU Business-CONNECT. “These grant programs fill that gap and help move the technology from the nascent stage to proof of concept and on to prototype. The grants are invaluable in helping to move MSU’s technologies toward commercialization.”

The MSU innovations boosted this year by such funds include a method to preserve subsoil water; cost-effective biofuel material pre-treatment; a less-invasive spinal fusion method; protein tagging for bioscience lab work; a heart performance monitor; and an advanced water oxygen sensor. Earlier grants backed MSU laser technology developer Marcos Dantus and hybrid vehicle engine innovator Norbert Mueller.

Grantees are working with the university’s technology transfer office, MSU Technologies, to patent and then license their innovations to companies or investors that can bring them to market. The reflux monitor has been under development for about a decade, Gewolb said, spun out from his work applying accelerometers to infant feeding and swallowing problems.


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.