Yoel Fink

Yoel Fink

Awarded in 2024

Sounds of Life

Acoustic fabrics for continuous fetal monitoring
Premise

Clothing that hears

While prenatal care has benefited from the use of electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) devices, they have their limitations. Primarily, they are used only intermittently and only by clinicians in healthcare settings. Yet expectant mothers are present with their unborn children on a 24/7 basis, and while they can feel kicking they have no way of knowing if what they feel is normal and if the fetus’ health is in jeopardy. This leads to anxiety for the mother and a lack of continuous information for physicians. This situation disproportionately affects “at risk” pregnancies, which have increased in prevalence in recent years.

A novel means of improving fetal monitoring through the use of AI-enabled acoustic fibers occurred to MIT Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Yoel Fink, whose research with multiple-material fibers has led to the development of a fiber-based scalpel used in minimally invasive surgeries and work with the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The traditional view of fibers is that they are simple and primitive, composed of a single material and delivering low-tech functionality,” says Fink. “It could be wool or polyester, a protein, or a plant-based source. As a materials scientist, I want to challenge that perception by creating complex fibers with advanced properties—a fiber Moore’s Law.” While exploring the possibilities of a fiber that converts mechanical motion into electrical signals, Fink realized that such a fiber could act like a microphone; the father of four then hit on the idea of an acoustic garment that could passively but continuously measure fetal heartbeats, kicks, and perhaps even the fetal position in the womb. Collaborating on the project is Dr. Rosanne Kho, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, Banner University Medical Center – Phoenix.

Challenge

From traditional funders, silence

This complex project will be undertaken in three phases: 1) Clinical testing to validate the accuracy of the acoustic garment against gold-standard ultrasound measurements; 2) Refinement of signal processing techniques to extract fetal heart rate signals; 3) Enhancing the fabric’s capabilities, developing machine learning approaches for real-time alerts, and investigating patterns of fetal activity. Along the way, there are numerous obstacles Fink’s team needs to overcome. For example, distinguishing target signals (fetal heartbeats, etc.) from ambient noises represents a critical challenge—made even more difficult when accounting for the mother’s much stronger heartbeat and fetal motion. Another obstacle is lack of experience. Says Fink, “While this research utilizes an acoustic fiber that my group has already developed and published, we have never participated in clinical research that relates to monitoring the heart and motion of the unborn. The lack of a track record in this field makes it challenging to obtain traditional NIH research grants.”

Potential

Learning from our clothing

According to Fink, “We are eager to explore this newfound ability to detect otherwise imperceptible vibrations and sound in the context of fetal monitoring. We envision being able to make the fibers smaller to make them more adaptable, and also incorporating signal processing directly into the fabric for standalone functionality.” At the same time, the acoustic fibers he is developing could well be utilized for other health-related applications beyond OB/GYN, including individuals with heart or respiratory conditions, delivering valuable advancements in healthcare for vulnerable populations.