The basic technologies used on Labor & Delivery units are, in a word, ancient. Given my passion for innovation in the L&D space, you can imagine how much I love this week’s featured Women’s Health Innovator: Bloomlife. With a major update to our old-school contraction monitors, Bloomlife is ushering in a new age of pregnancy monitoring and peace of mind.
Much to the chagrin of modern-day mothers, hospitals hook up their laboring patients to giant contraction monitors called tocometers or tocodynamometers. These cumbersome machines were invented in 1971, and little has changed or improved since that time. The machine uses a strain gauge to read out how often contractions occur (frequency) and how long they last (duration), but does not give any information on strength of contractions. An internal monitor called an Intrauterine Pressure Catheter (IUPC) can give data on the strength of contractions, but it involves an internal probe, which increases infection risk and permanently tethers mothers to the machine.
The team at Bloomlife did a complete re-design on the contraction monitor, changing even the most fundamental aspects of how it detects contractions. Bloomlife uses electrohysterography to detect and measure uterine muscle activity. The technology in the Bloomlife sensor and patch uses electrophysiology to passively detect the electrical activity of the muscle as it contracts. This is the same technology used in EKGs for cardiac activity. Each muscle type has its own signature, and through signal processing, the Bloomlife monitor extracts and separates uterine muscle activity (EHG) from other muscle signals. The sensor and system was built with their research goals in mind so they have high standards for the quality of data coming in. In addition, they designed their product with a close eye on it's value towards better understanding of pregnancy in the context of challenges facing neonatal and maternal health at scale. The design is also small, streamlined, and wireless.
In 2013, a group of researchers at the University of Florida compared the reliability of EHG monitoring (the type used in the Bloomlife product) with the traditional “Toco” machine and IUPCs. They found that “EHG performed significantly better than Toco.” They also learned that, unlike Toco, EHG was not affected by obesity, still giving reliable results regardless of maternal body habitus.
Bloomlife has ongoing clinical research projects and have published and presented at major conferences over the last few years, including Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. You can follow their research and findings on their ResearchGate project.
What inspired Bloomlife’s founders to dedicate themselves to innovating for pregnant mothers and families?
Bloomlife was born from the questions and concerns co-founder Julien Penders and his wife, Ludivine, encountered when having their first child. At the time, he and fellow co-founder Eric Dy, were working at the nano-electronics research center imec, where they had been developing ultra low power wearable systems for physiological tracking for more than a decade. Then it clicked — they had an opportunity to apply state-of-the-art technology to address problems women around the world encountered on a daily basis. In addition, as scientists, they recognized the knowledge gaps in the understanding of pregnancy physiology and the difficulties associated with research in this space. Through discussions with research partners (including the UCSF Preterm Birth Initiative), they recognized the value and opportunities of applying technology and consumer generated data to capture the most comprehensive dataset on maternal and fetal health ever collected and address the biggest challenges in prenatal care.
From the seed of an idea, the company has bloomed (pun intended). Pregnant women can order their contraction monitor through their website for $20 per week. On the clinical side, after a full year of donated data from Bloomlife moms, the team has gathered around 3,000 individual samples of contractions and birth day information and crunched their first set of user-generated data. Already, this is the largest physiological data set ever gathered from pregnant women outside of a clinical setting. Initial work with these data have helped them validate an important stepping stone as they work towards better understanding the signs and signals of labor and birth. In conjunction, their clinical research team in Europe has launched the WISH project which aims to better understand, predict, and detect early labor onset with a focus on preterm birth. And a second research project will focus on developing their technology to improve the evaluation and monitoring of fetal wellbeing. Both research projects received over $2M in grant funding to conduct.
Individual Bloomlife moms are also getting exciting about the scientific implications of the data. The Bloomlife team recently launched a citizen science initiative called the Nocturnal Surge Club that aims to speculate and (soon) evaluate what overnight contraction patterns mean for birth prediction. Women (and their doctors!) love seeing for the first time how active the body is at night. This new insight has women exclaiming, "Now I know why I'm so exhausted in the morning!" and doctors wondering if the data could predict when a woman will go into labor. Although these speculations are in the earliest stages, it is exciting to consider that this is the first time anyone has had a glimpse into the happenings of the uterine muscle at night time when women go to sleep in their own beds (as opposed to a clinical setting).
The future of Bloomlife will also expand the features available for women to gather more insight about their bodies and their pregnancy. The sensor itself is able to capture a range of parameters for mom and baby across pregnancy, and they’ll be unlocking more and more of these capabilities over the coming year.
The implications of at-home validated contraction monitoring are enough to get most moms and OBGYNs excited, but add in the potential of this treasure trove of physiologic data and I imagine you will be as excited to follow this company as I am. You can follow their updates and news here or email them at email@example.com.