UVA Team Plans Early Warning Device for Asthma

Oct 11, 2018

You might not expect a professor of engineering to report advances in medicine, but at the University of Virginia that’s what’s happening.  Daniel Quinn might revolutionize care for people with asthma.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer Daniel Quinn is playing a central role in developing an early warning system for asthma attacks.
Credit UVA

As a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Dan Quinn is interested in the movement of fluids and gases.  That makes him an ideal resource for Dr. Larry Borish, an allergist concerned with how patients get air into their lungs. Sometimes the airways narrow in response to allergens, and Quinn says that can trigger an asthma attack.

"There’s a drop in the amount of air that’s going through the airway," Quinn explains.

At first, people with asthma might not even notice, and that’s a problem because patients need to inhale preventive medications promptly.

"If you had a few extra minutes or even extra seconds that makes a difference in how you’re going to handle the attack," says Quinn.

Working through UVA’s Link Lab – a place where people from different disciplines collaborate to solve problems – he and Borish are hoping to develop a tiny sensor that can be planted in the trachea or lungs to alert patients at the very beginning of an attack.

"The goal is to have a procedure that doesn’t involve anesthesia," he says. "You’d just embed a sensor through the mouth, and it would passively detect airflow."

They hope to be testing the device by 2020 using laboratory animals.

"Dr. Borish is actually recommending horses, because horses have a disease similar to asthma," Quinn says. "There’s also a  lot of money in race horses, so a lot of people would be interested in how well horses are breathing."

For now, engineering students have been making rounds with Borish – meeting asthma patients to talk about the most useful design features of an early warning system. 

The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.