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sleep apnea device prototype
June 4, 2019

Device offers alternative sleep apnea treatment

Written By: Tom Ziemer


Sleep apnea may affect as many as 1 billion people worldwide, according to a 2018 analysis led by the medical device company ResMed. The disorder, in which a person repeatedly stops and starts breathing while sleeping, can cause a host of serious medical complications.

But the most widely used type of therapy device, a continuous positive airway pressure machine that blows air down a person’s throat to keep the airway open, routinely draws complaints. Nasal and mouth dryness, stomach bloating, the sheer noise of the machine and more can cause a patient to reject the treatment.

John Webster, a professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a design for a different kind of treatment device. Webster’s compact machine quietly collects a portion of the user’s expired air, then uses a quiet sensor and control system to return an appropriate amount of carbon dioxide back to the user—just enough to trigger the body’s automatic impulse to breathe—through a tube and mask. It runs on a small battery and doesn’t use a blower.

“I have personally worn this eight hours at night and I don’t even notice it,” says the 86-year-old Webster, who doesn’t have sleep apnea.

The device emerged from the Department of Biomedical Engineering’s design curriculum, when a project connected Webster with Jerome Dempsey, a professor emeritus in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health.

“When I went to see him, he showed me his research and what he was working on. I could see that developing this type of thing for sleep apnea required an engineer to design a sensor-controlled automatic device,” says Webster, who’s had several teams of biomedical engineering undergraduates work on various components of the device as their prototype design projects in recent years.

Webster recently received a U.S. patent for the device, which he’s turned over to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the independent, on-campus technology transfer organization that partners with UW-Madison researchers. WARF will seek to license the design to medical device or technology companies.

College of Engineering alumni Jacob Levin (BSBME ’16, MSBME ’17), Mehdi Shokoueinejad (MSBME ’13, BMEPhD ’16) and Fa Wang (ECEPhD ’16) are also listed as inventors on the patent, along with Dempsey, Department of Population Health Sciences colleague Ailiang Xie and Wisconsin School of Business alumnus Icaro dos Santos.