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Engineers Improve Diagnosis of Life-Threatening Disorder in Infants

C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD,
C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD,

Who:  C. “Nat” Nataraj, PhD, professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Villanova Center for Analytics of Dynamic Systems. Dr. Nataraj is a leader in studying how to predict failure of complex dynamic systems, including unmanned robots.

What: Diagnosing periventricular leukomalacia, a potentially deadly brain injury in premature infants that can cause serious speech, cognition and motor skills problems, as well as cerebral palsy or epilepsy later in life. Premature infants, especially those who undergo heart surgery, are at greatest risk of the disorder.

Collaboration: Dr. Nataraj is working with researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to help physicians examine biometrics to better diagnose PVL. The study is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Nataraj has worked with the CHOP team to track data from blood pressure, heart rate and gas concentration readings, as well as MRI images, to develop algorithms to predict not only when PVL may occur, but also the severity.

Engineers and Medicine: “Medical diagnostics is all about interpreting data to reach conclusions. Engineers know how to apply science, and they can apply the same science to human beings,” Dr. Nataraj says.

Success: For the first time, the team has recorded a 90 percent accuracy rate for predicting PVL. This will help medical staff determine when to take preventive measures or apply treatments. Dr. Nataraj’s contributions to medical diagnostics were featured in November 2016 by U.S. News & World Report in a look at the health care of tomorrow.

Additional research: Dr. Nataraj, who is also the Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Moritz, Sr. Endowed Chair in Engineered Systems, is partnering with CHOP on two additional studies: one on using data analysis to improve the success rate of CPR in hospitals and another to improve treatment of children in the intensive care unit.