Univ. of Washington researchers make futuristic baby monitors from smart speakers

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Researchers at the University of Washington created a system that can monitor babies’ breathing by reading how white noise sound waves reflect off of sleeping children. (Dennis Wise / UW Photo)

Alexa could soon be the ultimate baby monitor.

Researchers at the University of Washington created a speaker system that is capable of monitoring the breathing and movement of sleeping children. The work paves the way for a baby monitor that can track how much sleep kids are getting and detect problems like sleep apnea.

Parents already use Amazon’s Alexa and other smart speakers to play soothing noise and as a baby monitor, but the researchers took things to the next step by using microphones on the speakers and algorithms to decode breathing and movement patterns.

The system works by playing white noise, detecting how the sound reflects off of the bodies of infants, and turning that information into a breathing rate.

“By tracking the specific distance and figuring out exactly where the chest is moving, we can figure out the exact breathing pattern of the infant. And we can do it in a completely contactless manner,” Shyam Gollakota, a professor at UW and co-author on the study, told GeekWire.

Locating the direction of the child helped the team to overcome the challenge of detecting the subtle movements of babies’ breathing. Due to limitations on how developers are able to use microphones on consumer smart speakers like Alexa and Google Home, the researchers created their own speaker system for the study.

Gollakota and his collaborators plan to create a public version of the speaker skill through Sound Life Sciences, a startup that spun out of UW earlier this year. The team initially created Sound with the idea of developing a smartphone app that can monitor opioid users for signs of an overdose. They are also working on a consumer version of a smart speaker app that listens for signs of a heart attack.

Sound Life Sciences co-founders Nick Mark, Jacob Sunshine and Shyam Gollakota. (Sound Life Sciences photo)

The researchers tested the speaker on five babies in a Seattle-area hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and found that the system could detect breathing patterns that mirrored readings from the hospital’s own monitors.

There are a number of devices currently available that measure heart rate and breathing on babies, from smart socks to smart cameras. One advantage of the researchers’ system, called BreathJunior, is that it might work on smart speakers that people already own.

Going forward, the team wants to advance the system so that it can play lullabies in addition to white noise. Gollakota worked on the project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, with doctoral student Anran Wang and Dr. Jacob Sunshine.

Seattle Children’s opens a ‘cure factory’ to explore treatments for childhood cancer and other diseases

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Building Cure is a new 540,000 square-foot pediatric research center located at 1920 Terry Avenue in Seattle. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

Maryn Sage remembers the words she heard on the day she learned that her 16-year-old son, Jedd Feliciano, was cancer-free.

“His marrow’s clean,” the doctor told her over the phone, ending a devastating fight with leukemia that proved resistant to the standard treatment. Feliciano’s cure had come in the form of a clinical trial for CAR T immunotherapy at Seattle Children’s. Two years after his diagnosis, Feliciano was able to return to high school this fall as a junior.

A new 540,000 square-foot building in downtown Seattle hopes to expand the kinds of clinical trials that helped Feliciano and to serve children with cancer around the world. Seattle Children’s today opened the ambitiously-named Building Cure, which will act as a research hub to explore treatments for childhood cancer and other diseases.

Dr. Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

It’s a symbol of how far immunotherapy — which reprograms a patient’s immune cells to fight their cancer — has come in the past decade, when Seattle Children’s made its first investment in the field. “We had no idea at that time that we would accelerate immunotherapy products the way we have and impact kids the way we have,” said Dr. Jim Hendricks, president of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

On the 12th floor of the building is the “cure factory,” where scientists will create cell-based therapies for up to 1,000 children each year. Not all of those children will be in the Seattle region. Remote patients may have blood removed at local treatment centers and shipped to Seattle Children’s, where the cells will be reprogrammed to fight cancer and sent back to the patients.

Dr. Michael Jensen (right) gives Jedd Feliciano and his mother, Maryn Sage, a tour of the “cure factory.” (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Already, immunotherapy treatments manufactured at Seattle Children’s are available to patients at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Seattle Children’s is also establishing relationships with hospitals in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in the U.S.

Clinical trials are the bridge between research efforts and FDA-approved treatments. “This is where the transition happens from learning how to cure a childhood disease in a mouse or petri dish and beginning the very hard work of learning how to cure that disease in children,” said Dr. Michael Jensen, director of the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s.

“Being a part of a clinical trial is super important,” said Sage. “Researchers get the information so that they can eradicate this.”

The immune cells of patients in clinical trials will be reprogrammed to fight cancer inside of this room. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Much of the building is currently empty and will be filled out as new programs are created. Seattle Children’s is also pursuing treatments for a range of childhood diseases like diabetes, epilepsy, malaria, cancer, sickle cell, ADHD and rare disorders like mitochondrial diseases.

“Science moves at a rapid pace. Technology moves at a rapid pace,” said Hendricks. “So to have floors ready for the next technology, for the next area of research investment, is really important to us.” The 10 floors of new biomedical laboratory space nearly double Seattle Children’s research campus to more than 1.1 million square feet.

A lab space on the ground floor will be used to teach students from local schools how to perform experiments related to the research done at the center, such as isolating white cells from blood samples and running DNA tests.

Jensen imagines a future in which an immunotherapy treatment could be created within a week of a cancer diagnosis. Patients would receive their engineered T cells, get a fever and chills for a few days, and go on to be cancer-free. “We’re a long way from that. But that’s how far we’re going to try to get this to,” Jensen said.