Seventeen-year-old invents $35 3D-printed device for diagnosing respiratory diseases

Maya Varma's $35 lung-capacity measuring device.
Maya Varma’s $35 Spirometer.

Not many teens can say they attend an Ivy League school and perhaps even fewer can claim an invention to their name. This is not the case for 17-year-old Maya Varma, an engineering student and intern at Stanford University in California, who has developed a low-cost 3D-printed device that can analyze a patient’s breath and help to diagnose pulmonary diseases. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people suffer from respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and restrictive lung disease. In fact, respiratory diseases and infections are the third leading cause of death, after cancer and heart disease. Sadly, many deaths caused by respiratory disease occur because of lack of diagnosis and lack of proper treatment. Because these processes often require expensive medical equipment and devices, a disproportionate number of respiratory-illness-related deaths occur in developing countries where medical resources are limited. One of the key tools used to diagnose pulmonary disease is called a Spirometer. This expensive piece of equipment is essentially a lung-monitoring device which measures the amount of air a patient takes in and breathes out. The data captured by a spirometer enables doctors to accurately diagnose if a patient is suffering from any one of the five main respiratory conditions mentioned above. In an effort to make the crucial technology accessible to more people, Varma set out to develop an alternative to the spirometer that could be just as effective – without the expensive price tag.

Maya Varma.
Maya Varma.

Ultimately, the 17-year-old found that she could make a lung-capacity measuring device with just a few (relatively) simple parts – a 3D printed mouthpiece, an electronics board, and a smartphone! In short, the device works by having the patient breathe into the 3D-printed mouthpiece, which is in turn connected to a PCB which processes the breath data. This information is then sent to a companion app hosted on an Android smartphone or mobile device. The app shows the user the breathing data in a comprehensive graph, and can even analyze the results to help with a diagnosis. Varma won $150,000 from the Intel Science Talent Search in 2016 for her device capable of detecting respiratory illness symptoms and classifying them. This will enable users to determine if a patient is suffering from either asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or restrictive lung disease. Best of all, by creatively using a combination of 3D-printed parts, inexpensive and accessible electronics, and open-source software, Varma was able to make her breakthrough breath-analyzing device for only $35. (Editor’s note: Ok, to be fair, that’s $35 dollars American).

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.