Tech advances in jaundice diagnosis

Jaundice is a common condition in newborns, especially premature babies, where there is an overload of an orange-yellow pigment called bilirubin in the bloodstream.

It normally resolves quickly when the baby’s liver is mature enough to remove it from the body.

However, in severe cases of jaundice, caused by sickle cell anaemia, blood disorders and lack of certain enzymes, phototherapy is normally used to treat the condition, using fluorescent blue light to break down the bilirubin in the baby’s skin.

Jaundice is said to occur in up to 85% of all live births – particularly in premature babies – and can lead to brain damage, hearing loss and even death if not quickly treated.

This makes diagnosis and the commencement of treatment extremely important.

Now diagnosis and treatment commencement has been made faster and easier with new imaging software designed by the University of South Australia (UniSA) researchers, which can detect jaundice in one second, automatically start treatment, and notify a nurse by text.

Engineers from UniSA and Middle Technical University have designed imaging software that can accurately diagnose jaundice in the blink of an eye, automatically turn on a blue LED light to counteract it and send the diagnosis in an SMS to the carer.

UniSA remote sensing engineer Professor Javaan Chahl says jaundice is particularly prevalent in developing countries where there often isn’t the equipment or trained medical staff to effectively treat it.

“Using image processing techniques extracted from data captured by the camera, we can cheaply and accurately screen newborns for jaundice in a non-invasive way, before taking a blood test,” says Professor Chahl.

“When the bilirubin levels reach a certain threshold, a microcontroller triggers blue LED phototherapy and sends details to a mobile phone.

“This can be done in one second, literally, which can make all the difference in severe cases, where brain damage and hearing loss can result if treatment is not administered quickly.”

Researchers reportedly tested the system in an intensive care unit in Mosul, Iraq, on 20 newborns diagnosed with jaundice.

A second data set captured 16 images of newborns, five of whom were healthy, and the remainder jaundiced.

The system was also successfully tested on four other manikins with white and brown skin colours, with and without jaundice pigmentation.

“Previous research using sensors to find a non-invasive way to detect jaundice has fallen short,” says Professor Chahl.

“Methods trialled have been unreliable, costly, inefficient and in some cases caused infections and allergies where sensors needed skin contact.

“Our system overcomes these obstacles by immediately detecting jaundice based on a novel digital representation of colour which allows high diagnostic accuracy at a relatively low cost.

“It could be widely used in hospitals worldwide and medical centres where laboratory facilities and trained medical staff are not available.”

The study has been published in the engineering journal Designs

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