Logo: University of Southern California

Finding Baby Veins

Developed by USC Viterbi students, InDepth works like a stud finder for veins and arteries
By: Katie McKissick
February 05, 2014 —
"Blood cells" by Katie McKissick

It began with a problem put forth by a Children’s Hospital Los Angeles doctor to students involved in HTE@USC, the Health, Technology and Engineering program: putting arterial or venous lines in tiny, premature babies is extremely difficult. USC Viterbi School of Engineering Ph.D. student, Thomas Cummins said, “What if there was a device that used Doppler ultrasound imaging technology to find the arteries—a stud-finder-type device that finds where and how deep those arteries are?”

With that idea, InDepth was born.

This spring 2013 meeting of doctors and engineers was made possible by the Center for Technology and Innovation in Pediatrics (CTIP), an organization formed with the support of the Office of the Provost at USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to address the substantial unmet need for novel pediatric medical devices. Cummins attended the meeting after he heard the presentation done by first year HTE@USC students. An experienced doctoral student, Cummins felt he had the expertise to take on this challenge on top of his other projects. InDepth is a perfect example of the type of innovation that can happen when doctors present engineers with an obstacle.

“It started with a problem identified by a CHLA doctor, and then we threw out the engineering design,” said Cummins. “Then it snowballed into a project. Our goal is to craft the whole business model around that device and how nurses and doctors will adopt this.”

Senior biomedical engineering major Alexa Hudnut was also on the CTIP rounds that day, and she too had the notion of using Doppler ultrasound to help nurses locate neonatal arteries. At the culmination of the meeting, she approached Cummins about further developing the idea.

“I think it would revolutionize who can provide care,” Hudnut said. “Right now, only people with five plus years of experience can place these arterial or venous lines.”

Indeed, sometimes after several nurses have spent over an hour trying to place a line, the task is passed to ever more senior medical personnel until often the most experienced doctor in the hospital performs this procedure. It’s a misuse of that person’s time and expertise.

Danielle Smith, a registered nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, is well acquainted with the difficulty of finding newborn babies’ veins, but said it’s not always the premature babies that give her the most trouble. As their skin is mostly translucent, you can often see with the naked eye the approximate location of a blood vessel.

“When I think of a difficult patient, I think of full term babies or babies that are a few months old. They have that subcutaneous fat—the cute, chubby babies—which makes their veins harder to see, especially if the baby is dehydrated. You’re working blind.”

In such cases as these, it can take hours to get a line in a baby and involve up to five people, she said. “If a nurse practitioner can’t place a line bedside, the babies actually have to undergo surgery to place the line.” A device like InDepth, Smith said, would “help avoid anesthesia, and would cut down health costs for everyone. It would be one less surgery.”

The team behind InDepth is working on ways to develop this device, while making it affordable so it can be adopted by as many hospitals as possible. The team also wants this device to help healthcare in impoverished regions of the world. “I’m into developing technologies for developing worlds,” said Hudnut.

So far, InDepth has won an award at the Senior Design Showcase and deemed “Most Disruptive” at the USC Stevens Innovator’s Showcase. The team is currently in the running for the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition while they apply for government grants, small business loans and intellectual property patents. 2014 is shaping up to be a big year for this disruptive company.