ETH researchers have developed a sensor to measure the risk of premature birth. Biomechanic
Sabrina Badir and her team are working towards the worldwide breakthrough.
A portrait of Ruedi Baumann
The scene in the ETH lab on Leonhardstrasse is reminiscent of the physics internship at school. If it were not for this
art vagina, built into a device that looks like a small washing machine and simulates the female abdomen. The 30-year-old biomechanist Sabrina Badir handles with a tube-like probe to which a vacuum pump is connected. With this simple device, the three team members want to solve one of the major medical problems: how to reliably recognize the risk of premature birth?
Sabrina Badir, who grew up in Zurich with Swiss-Egyptian roots, is the born impetus of a
start-up company that still has to fight for every franc today, but perhaps soon will have a great future
beckons. She is energetic, uncomplicated, knows exactly what she wants - but above all she can
convince potential investors with her natural charisma and laxity, who are
not quite warm in the face of the intimate female anatomy .
Premature births are one of the most common causes of mortality and long-term neonatal disease worldwide. The risk assessment in pregnant women is still not
solved satisfactorily . The weakness of the cervix (premature maturation) is central. The most common
diagnostic method is the search for a shortening of the cervix by ultrasound. The determination of
the cervical length is too sensitive for good diagnoses.
First tests on the own tongue
The captivating idea: During her doctoral thesis Badir worked on a much more reliable method.
Their prototype works like this: A pump creates a slight vacuum, at the tip of a probe, the tissue
is sucked in by a few millimeters, and thereby the negative pressure is measured. The softer the tissue, the less vacuum it needs. In the beginning, Sabrina Badir experimented with meat cuts from the butcher, then on her arm,
on her cheek and even on her tongue. "Absolutely painless and comparable to palpation of the cervix," she says. The research tool was in a clinical study from 2010 to 2012
tested - performed by gynecologists and with the blessing of the ethics committee. A total of 1000 measurements were
taken - 50 women each on pregnant and non-pregnant women. The measurements showed astonishingly clear results: in order to suck in a pea-sized tissue particle on the cervix four millimeters wide, non-pregnant people need 300 millibar negative pressure. In the course of pregnancy, the necessary negative pressure on a wonderfully round curve drops to almost 50 millibars before birth - so the tissue becomes softer with each passing month.
"This insight is new," says Badir. It complements a parallel study by a Spanish-Colombian research group, which has shown that women with a soft cervix are at an increased risk of developing
Have premature birth. Their method, however, did not appeal to the gynecologist, because it is clinically hardly
applicable. The ETH sensor is completely different: "The insertion of the probe and the slight negative pressure are absolutely
painless - most women have not noticed that the measurement has already ended," says Sabrina
Badir proudly. "We want to show in the ongoing clinical trial that we
can predict the risk of premature birth twice as reliably as today. "This means that in 80 out of 100 pregnant women with a premature birth risk, the prognosis should be correct. Badir is convinced that her system will soon become the new standard in pregnancy surveillance.
At the big Swiss start-up competition Venture, Badir promptly won in the category for the best
business ideas last year . All she now needed was a low-cost and commercial version of the gauge to determine tissue strength, and support in drawing up a business plan.
This was the chance for speed dating Francisco Delgado (33), son of a gynecologist from Lisbon, a graduate physicist and award-winning developer of scales measuring the weight of single cells in grams with 15 zeros after the decimal point. Francisco had met Sabrina at the start-up speed dating at the ETH - the researchers had to explain their project in a good minute. The physicist asked the biomechanist, "Do you have any work for me?" "Sure," she said, "but no money." So Delgado, driven by the urge to research and innovate, started to develop the device for ease-of-use Income as a scientist
at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Aargau.
The market potential is enormous. Seven to nine percent of children are born prematurely worldwide, ie before the
37th week of pregnancy. The rule is 40 weeks. The tendency to preterm birth is increasing (increasing age of mothers, multiple births after artificial insemination). In the US, the cost of health and developmental costs for premature babies is estimated at
$ 50,000 or $ 25 billion a year. "For women, the fear of premature birth is latent - and if a
baby has to stay in the incubator instead of going home with the mother, it's very stressful," says Badir.
Despite rosy prospects, the newly founded company Pregnolia has "a few more construction sites", as Sabrina Badir says. She has therefore brought a third architect on board: Annette Burggaf (51), chemist, educator and today life and learning coach. Above all, Burggraf was a project manager for 12 years in international pharmaceutical companies and a specialist in planning and conducting clinical trials. "The regulatory requirements
for such studies are very high," says Burggraf, "but unlike the pharmaceutical industry, there is much less money available to develop start-up devices."
Sabrina Badir and her team have already won several prestigious researcher awards. Francisco Delgado does not have to work for free anymore, when he makes an elegant part for mass production out of the handy probe, which is well in the hands of the gynecologist and does not deter women. Target: Costs of more than 1000 francs. For a doctor's office, this is a small investment compared to an X-ray or ultrasound machine.
Wanted: 1000 pregnant women
A challenge for the team in the coming months. The previous series of measurements on 100 women
only gives a "first evidence". In a scientific experiment involving a thousand pregnant women, the method
and device must now pass the clinical test. The tests take place, among others, at the Unispital Zurich (obstetrics clinic), in a few private gynecological practices in Volketswil and Zurich, and soon also in the Cantonal Hospital of Baden. "We can only do these studies thanks to pregnant women who volunteer, as well as committed and research-minded gynecologists," says Badir.
The Pregnolia team is confident: "We want to bring our product to market in 2018." Then, the risk of premature birth can be predicted so accurately that a doctor
can take pregnancy- preserving measures : rest and lying, hormone therapy, or surgical temporary closure of the mother's mouth.