WMU News

Company comes to WMU to put science 'behind' their product

Nov. 6, 1997

KALAMAZOO -- Researchers at Western Michigan University and a Portage medical manufacturing company are trying to get to the bottom of an expensive, yet preventable problem -- pressure ulcers or bedsores.

For more than one year, faculty and students from the WMU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering have been working with MicroPulse to determine if a product the company has developed and patented is more effective at maintaining blood flow, reducing pressure and preventing tissue damage than those already on the market.

"MicroPulse was looking for independent scientific studies and we were interested in the opportunity to have students conduct meaningful scholarly research," says Dr. Tycho K. Fredericks, WMU assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering and co-director of the department's Human Performance Institute, which conducted the testing.

Called the MicroPulse System, the product resembles high-tech bubble wrap packaging material, only in this case, it's attached to a hose and an electrical air pump. The pump inflates and deflates the air pocket cells in an alternating pattern every two minutes, allowing blood flow into areas beneath a person who is lying or sitting for a long period of time.

"Our body's natural response to pressure is to move or shift our weight," says Jim Tappel, vice president of MicroPulse. "But if a person can't feel or if they're unconscious on an operating room table for 12 hours in heart surgery, the surface has to move for them. Pressure doesn't kill tissue, lack of blood flow does."

Researchers tested the product using infrared technology to assess blood flow in the buttocks after a two-hour period of lying down. Working with men and women over the age of 50, the group had the subjects lie on a variety of surfaces, then rolled them over to take the infrared photos of their backsides. A rush of blood to an area indicated the body's attempt to replenish nutrients and heat, a sign that tissue damage would occur if left for longer periods of time.

Fredericks and his students fine-tuned the research procedures, then tested the MicroPulse system against a gel pad and the standard foam pad, which are both typically found in hospital operating rooms. Early results indicate good news for the company.

"The gel pad and the foam pad are more static in nature," Fredericks explains. "A person lies on it and that's it. During surgery, the patient often maintains one position for hours, resulting in areas of blood-starved tissue. With the MicroPulse product's alternating inflating and deflating zones, the blood has an opportunity to move around and that's what we proved in our study. It does make a significant difference."

Armed with these results and a relatively inexpensive product that can be made to fit a variety of settings, MicroPulse hopes to make a major impact in the health care industry, unrolling its system on hospital room operating tables, nursing home beds and even wheelchairs.

Tappel and Fredericks expect the product could save hospitals thousands of dollars in unplanned medical expenses as they often shoulder the $5,000 to $27,000 involved in treating bedsore wounds.

"There are 60,000 deaths a year attributed to pressure ulcers or bedsores," Tappel says. "This isn't just a nuisance -- people die from these."

Researchers are also certain that with a few adjustments, the MicroPulse concept can also be utilized in other places where folks sit for long periods of time, whether in a cab of a semi-truck or at the computer in an office.

"This really is the pneumatic equivalent of the wooden beads often seen on the seats of New York City taxi cabs," Tappel jokingly says of the product, which took more than two years and $1 million to produce.

With the WMU studies complete, MicroPulse is now conducting clinical trials of its product within health care settings, while Fredericks and his students are in the midst of publishing papers and making presentations around the country. The project has also resulted in additional student research projects, and some students are now working for the MicroPulse firm.

The work was funded by a $155,000 state grant from MERRA, a small business development program contracted by the Michigan Jobs Commission. The goal of MERRA is to team researchers with common interests in joint projects that eventually result in job creation.

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