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Biodesign fellows take on night terrors in children

baby on bed

Standing in the Clark Center’s grand courtyard, gazing upward at scientists ascending an outdoor staircase and traversing the exterior corridors on the top two floors, one senses that big ideas take shape here. But how?

Prototyping, say Andy Rink, MD, and Varun Boriah, MS, who spent the last year as Biodesign fellows. Part of Stanford's Bio-X community, the Biodesign Program trains researchers, clinicians and engineers to be medical-technology innovators during its year-long fellowship. Fellows learn the Biodesign Process, which could be likened to design thinking for health care. On teams of two or four, the fellows identify a substantial health-care need and generate ideas to solve it using medical-device innovation.

Though most Biodesign projects take root after fellows complete a “clinical immersion” shadowing health-care workers in a hospital to observe problems, Rink found his inspiration when visiting family and waking up to a 3-year-old relative’s screams from recurring night terrors. The problem was not so much that it affected the child – pediatricians may advise that children will likely outgrow the condition – but that it affected the parents, Rink saw.  The parent's lost sleep and anxiety over their child's well being had huge effects on their quality of life. (In some cases, these are so severe that Xanax and Valium may be prescribed to the children as a last-ditch effort.) What if a treatment could be found that involved no medication and no parental intervention, offering everyone a solid night’s sleep?

The physician and engineer are working with School of Medicine sleep researchers Christian Guilleminault, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Shannon Sullivan, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, on a clinical method to treat night terrors in children. In a first-floor room of the Clark Center, they’re protoyping an under-mattress device that senses how deeply a child is sleeping and is able to prevent the nightly episodes from occurring, creating a healthier sleep cycle for the children.  This relieves the parent's anxiety, and helps the entire family sleep better.

Faculty and students from more than 40 departments across Stanford's campus, including the schools of medicine, business, law, engineering and humanities and sciences, play a role in Biodesign, as do experts from outside the university. Fellows work closely with the Institute of Design at Stanford, attending - and then teaching - the school's d.bootcamp. They also have access to the d.school's facilities and consult regularly with their faculty. Some of the d.school's methods - focusing on big problems, encouraging radical collaboration, prototyping early and user-testing before focusing on functionality - guide the trajectory of Biodesign projects.

Physicians who are Biodesign fellows often work outside their specialty, and engineers bring a mix of academic and industry experience to the design table. While faculty mentors may simply provide advice to fellows, Guilleminault and Sullivan have become invested in the course of the research as lead investigators on the study. For their involvement, they were both honored with the Biodesign Specialty Team Mentorship Award.

Fellow Boriah noted that medical-device innovation is moving from products like catheters to systems such as health IT, mobile health and software. A former CEO and co-founder of a wearable patient blood-diagnostics device, he said the Biodesign program has provided valuable “access to clinical reality.” Rink, a surgical resident at Northwestern University, said that as a fellow, he’s been “exposed to a side you don’t see in a hospital.”

The researchers are currently recruiting participants ages 2-12 for their study. Rink and Boriah are also working with the Stanford-supported StartX to see their project into the next stage of development.

Previously: Sleep, baby, sleep: Infants’ sleep difficulties could signal future problemsStudying pediatric sleep disorders an “integral part” of the future of sleep medicine and At Med School 101, teens learn that it’s “so cool to be a doctor” 
Photo by MissMayoi

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