Inquiry in Action
Developing a Modern Shunt
A new kind of hydrocephalus shunt being developed by Dr. Sam Browd incorporates the latest technologies and promises to dramatically reduce failure rates.
Typical childhood issues like irritability, tummy upset, headache and sleepiness are always cause for parental concern. When a child has hydrocephalus, such issues could be signs that their shunt — a device implanted in the brain to draw off excess spinal fluid — has stopped working.
“Families of my patients with hydrocephalus are always on pins and needles,” says Dr. Sam Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s. “There’s no guarantee their child’s shunt will last for any length of time, which is unnerving.”
In today’s high-tech world, it’s almost impossible to believe that lifesaving shunts have changed little since they were introduced in the 1950s — and that their failure rates remain the same as half a century ago: 30% the first year, 40% the second year and 98% within 10 years.
Browd intends to change that.
He and Dr. Barry Lutz, a micro-fluidics expert at University of Washington (UW), are designing and developing a shunt that will reduce the clogging issues that cause 90% of today’s shunt failures. It will also incorporate technology that allows clinicians to check the functionality of the device remotely.
The pair plan to bring the new device to market within the next five years thanks to the UW’s Center for Commercialization, which helps researchers bring their innovations out of the lab and into people’s lives.
A better, smarter shunt
Browd and Lutz started from scratch with a wish list of modern technologies that could be used to create the shunt of neurosurgeons’ — and parents’ — dreams. What they came up with is a battery-operated anti-fouling device with exquisite regulatory control.
To make sure the new device lives up to its “anti-fouling” reputation for not getting clogged by debris, Browd and Lutz tested its electromechanical valve with cocoa powder — a substance that causes current shunts to malfunction. In tests, the new mechanism was able to recognize and clear the obstruction, then re-regulate itself.
Besides being failure-resistant, the valve will have a battery life of eight years — a design element that will help take the crisis out of replacing a shunt because families will be able to plan for the procedure before the device fails.
The pair will also build in auto-diagnostics capability powered by telemetry — an electronic data transmission feature that will allow clinicians to check the working status of a child’s shunt remotely. This innovation will decrease kids’ exposure to radiation (from multiple CT scans currently used to evaluate shunt performance) and will reduce the number of clinic visits for families.
Engineered into the auto-diagnostics function will be the ability to record a child’s intracranial pressure, which will help providers manage kids with chronic headaches more effectively. Potentially, clinicians will be able to relieve a child’s headache by remotely dialing up or down how much fluid flows out of the brain.
“Our immediate goal is to reduce shunt malfunctions by 50%,” explains Browd. “If we can meet that milestone, we’ll have vastly improved the way hydrocephalus is treated.”
Learn more about Drs. Browd and Lutz work here.
Drs. Sam Browd and Barry Lutz started from scratch with a wish list of modern technologies that could be used to create the shunt of neurosurgeons’ — and parents’ — dreams. They are designing a battery-operated anti-fouling device with exquisite regulatory control.