A Better Shunt to Treat Pediatric Hydrocephalus

According to HSC News, researchers at the University of Southern California have engineered a device that may have a sizable impact on those with pediatric hydrocephalus. By troubleshooting the issues with previous treatment devices, engineering professors Ellis Meng and Tuan Hoang have created what they believe is a more successful version. Hopefully, this invention will offer relieve to those with the brain condition.

What is Hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is a rare condition in which there is a build up of fluid inside the brain cavities. This fluid, in normal levels, helps keep the brain buoyant, cushions the brain to prevent injury, removes waste products of the brain’s metabolism, and maintains constant pressure inside the brain. However, in excess the fluid enlarges the brain and puts too much pressure on it. Ultimately, all of these things lead to brain damage. The condition predominantly affects infants and older adults. Symptoms of hydrocephalus include unusually large head, vomiting, a bulging or tense soft spot on head, sleepiness or irritability, seizures, eyes fixed downward, and more. There are two different surgical treatments available for those with hydrocephalus, the most common of the two being a shunt insertion. To learn more about the condition, click here.

An Improved Invention

Though the shunt insertion for patients with hydrocephalus is common and mostly effective, there are often structural issues with the device. In many instances, shunts develop issues that are undetectable until the patient with the device begins suffering. To try and alleviate some of this uncertainty, professors Ellis Meng and Tuan Hoang have developed and patented new technology for a smarter shunt system capable of alerting doctors about shunt malfunction before it’s too late.

The two worked closely with doctors who were knowledgeable on these shunt issues and could provide insight into the major problems. Specifically, they collaborated with neurosurgeons at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles as well as biomedical engineering students to aid in developing the technology.

“Neurosurgeons mentioned that their greatest ‘pain’ was the diagnosis of hydrocephalus shunt failure, which is inevitable,” said Hoang. “Patient care could be greatly improved while minimizing patient suffering if only there was a fast, reliable and affordable method for timely assessment to guide clinical intervention.”

The other downside to standard shunts is that they get clogged frequently. This clogging is usually undetected until the patients with clogged shunts experience intense pain and discomfort from the fluid buildup.

Biomedical engineering PhD student Alex Baldwin found additional stats on faulty shunts. He said that up to 50 percent of standard shunts become clogged in the first year of implantation. Additionally,  “after a decade, 80 to 90 percent of shunts have failed. These patients are almost guaranteed to need at least one shunt revision or more in their lifetime.”

To make matters worse, it is additionally difficult to discern whether or not the pain/symptoms a patient experiences is due to a failed shunt or another disease or ailment. For example, a patient with a faulty shunt may exhibit flulike symptoms, and doctors then have to send the patient into brain scans as well as an invasive procedure called “shunt tap” in order to differentiate between the two.

What They Did Differently

The team, led by Meng and Hoang, have decided to focus on three different parameters in their new shunt technology: pressure, flow, and blockage. This focus alerts clinicians before shunt failure that something has gone awry.

“Having all these sensors adds a lot of redundancy and gives patients peace of mind,” said Yoon, a biomedical engineering PhD student who is part of the team.

Currently, Yoon is working towards making the pressure sensor up to par with physician standards, while flow and blockage sensors are currently being validated in tests.

The ultimate goal, when all is approved, is that self-diagnosis will be able to detect when one of the three parameters is too far off range. As a result, doctors will be alerted to analyze the data as well as make follow up appointments with the patients if needed.

“People have tried over the course of many decades to make shunts that don’t fail, but because there’s no data from the body to inform the designs, no one has succeeded,” said Meng. “I’m hoping we can provide doctors with data on when the shunts fail and that some of this data will be useful in designing shunts that don’t fail at all in the future.”

As of now, the team has finished prototypes for all of their sensor technologies. Baldwin says that the next checkpoints are to produce the wireless technologies and work towards human clinical trials. To read more about this incredible new technology, click here.


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