Life support care could soon undergo significant improvement thanks to technology recently created by a collection of researchers and engineers led by Dr. Donald Prough, chair of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Department of Anesthesiology.

The group created an instrument that allows medical professionals the ability to more accurately localize endotracheal tubes within patients by using a pulsed laser light to generate an ultrasound signal that identifies the exact position of the tube.

The development is noteworthy because endotracheal tubes are the principal component of life support, Prough said. Hospital staff and EMS workers use the tubes to provide mechanical ventilation to patients.

The tube is inserted into a patient’s mouth, goes through the larynx and into the trachea, the passage in the neck and chest that carries air into and out of the lungs.

“But for the tube to work properly, it needs to be placed just right,” Prough said.

Currently the most common way to administer the tube is a direct laryngoscopy, Prough said. The procedure precludes medical workers from seeing the location of the tube once it has passed the larynx, which hinders the tube’s effectiveness.

If it’s too far in, it might ventilate only one lung, Prough said. If it’s not in far enough, it might damage the vocal cords or be accidentally withdrawn, he added.

The new technology will help remedy that situation.

“It’s either there or it’s not, so the ultrasound signal helps immensely because it’s precise,” Prough said.

The groups who will benefit most from the breakthrough are infants and children as well as patients transported from an accident scene or from one medical facility to another.

It’s a pressing issue in infants and children because the tolerances are so small, Prough said. Their bodies allow less room to work with as far as having the tube properly positioned.

The reason it’s critical during transport is that resources and personnel are limited during the journey, Prough said.

Patients are either in an ambulance or aircraft. Determining the location of the tube is difficult during the trip. Certifying the tube is placed correctly before transport is crucial, Prough said.

“It needs to be in position before the patient leaves the referring facility or the accident scene,” he said.

The team behind the ultrasound device’s creation includes the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Yuriy Petrov, Rinat Esenaliev and Irene Petrov. The project started about three years ago.

Michael Bigham and Teresa Volsko helped with clinical testing of the instrument at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Researchers also conducted testing at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.

Prospiria Inc., a company based at the University of Texas Medical Branch, will assist in commercializing the technology. To get the device to market, a prototype must be developed for manufacturing. It also needs clearance from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

“The process will be completed probably two to three years from now,” Prough said.

Prospiria won a $50,000 award for the device in October at the annual Pediatric Surgical Innovation Symposium, held this year in the District of Columbia. The event awarded two finalists out of 53 applicants from five countries.

Prough presented the instrument at the symposium. The money will go to continued testing at Akron Children’s Hospital, a marketing study for the product and a collaboration with Rice University to determine additional developments for the technology, he said.

He expressed confidence that the device will find a market. About a million endotracheal tubes are placed in infants and children each year. Adults require 24 million. Among those totals, as many as 2 million are in very risky locations, Prough said.

A U.S. patent has already been secured for the product, as well as patent protection outside the country in several areas. Prough’s team anticipates that the technology will be used in the U.S. and also various locations in Europe and other major international countries, he said.

“We think the technology’s market is probably at least a million uses per year in children and adults,” he said. “It’s probably much higher than that.”

Contact reporter Joseph Baucum at 409-683-5237 or Follow him on Twitter @baucum_joseph.