New Collaboration Launches to Advance Technology for Children’s Health

By Nina Bai

Virtual-reality technology designed for children’s health care was among the technology showcased at the Engineering for Children’s Health Symposium. Photo by Susan Merrell

The development of new devices and technology for children’s health is often overlooked by industry because the markets are smaller compared with health care for adults.

To help kick-start innovative projects at the intersection of technology and medicine, UC San Francisco has joined with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) and UC Berkeley to form the Engineering for Children’s Health Initiative.

Steve Sanchez, chief pilot at SuitX, models an exoskeleton that allows him to walk. The technology was featured at the Engineering for Children's Health Symposium held at UCSF. Photo by Susan Merrell

“We are poised to make advances at the intersection of biology and technology, and there is no greater mission than helping the most vulnerable populations worldwide, children and infants,” said Hanmin Lee, MD, surgeon-in-chief at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco and co-director of the new initiative.

Already, artificial kidneys, magnets that correct skeletal deformities, and virtual-reality therapy for pain management are among the new technologies being developed at UCSF to advance children’s health.

Showcasing Innovation

Researchers, clinicians, and engineers from across the Bay Area gathered on Jan. 12 for the first annual Engineering for Children’s Health Symposium where they showcased innovative projects and addressed the need for more infrastructure and funding for pediatric health solutions. The symposium marked the start of the Engineering for Children’s Health Initiative.

Among the projects presented, many aim to improve patient safety and quality of care in hospitals. The UCSF Clinical Innovations Center brought projectors into hospital rooms to transform bare walls into beautiful scenery, and it developed monitors that can detect delirium in overnight patients. Elemeno Health, an app co-founded by Arup Roy-Burman, MD, associate professor in the department of pediatrics, provides up-to-date checklists, how-to videos, and guidelines for busy medical staff.

Some projects are harnessing technology to improve neurologic disabilities in children. Edward Chang, MD, professor of neurological surgery, is developing new ways to map how neural processes give rise to the way we speak. Using electrodes placed on the brain, he hopes to develop a “periodic table” of the elements of human language, which may one day lead to speech neuroprostheses that could restore communications to those who lose speech from ALS and other conditions.

Virtual Reality to Reduce Pain Intensity

Magnetic devices that correct deformities in the chest wall are among the technology already being used at UCSF to help better meet children’s health care needs. Photo by Susan Merrell

KindVR is borrowing virtual-reality technology from the gaming world to mitigate pain in children with sickle cell disease. In a pilot study at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, 15-minute sessions in which children explore and interact with a calming underwater world full of dolphins, whales, and rainbow-colored bubbles seems to reduce pain intensity by 16 percent. Additional VR pilot studies are underway in Oakland for oncology and MRI patients.

Other projects are focused on designing child-specific medical devices. The UCSF Pediatric Device Consortium develops devices through on-the-ground problem-solving, including the Magnetic Mini-Mover that gradually reconfigures chest deformities and an implantable artificial kidney to treat children requiring acute hemodialysis.

Still others are looking to advance technologies used in fetal surgery. Tippi Mackenzie, MD, associate professor of surgery, is researching stem cell transplants in fetuses for alpha thalassemia and other blood disorders. Her studies suggest that the fetus can learn to tolerate foreign cells it encounters during development.  

In his closing remarks, Lee said he hoped that the Engineering for Children’s Health Initiative would not only spur collaboration and new ideas but attract more funding and infrastructure for children’s health. “I’m inspired by the promise of what we can do together.”