Each year, about one in 700 babies worldwide is born with a cleft palate, a condition in which the tissue of the palate, which separates the oral and nasal passages, fails to fuse properly during pregnancy. As a result, these infants have difficulty gaining weight. They cannot generate the negative pressure needed to draw milk from a breast or bottle during the crucial months before their palate is repaired—usually between nine and 12 months after birth. Thanh “Vi” Tran (BME ‘14) has been working with three former BME undergraduates to design a better bottle to help babies born with cleft palate gain the nutrition they need. Her plan is to develop a prototype and begin clinical testing later this year.
For Tran, this project was irresistible. “My niece was born cleft lip and palate, and I know how difficult it was for my sister to feed her,” she says.
Tran and her colleagues are working with Associate Professor Silvia Blemker, who launched a broader effort more than five years ago to improve the outcome of reconstructive surgery for cleft palate.
One of the first things Tran’s team did was create a standardized system to test the current baby bottle design for children with cleft palate. She found that its flow rate was substantially lower than standard baby bottles. These specialized bottles are also difficult to control—milk or formula can easily be directed into a child’s nasal cavity rather than mouth—and their complicated design makes them difficult to clean and maintain.
After much brainstorming and discussion, Tran and her colleagues have produced a simpler design that resembles the natural feeding process. It features a newly designed nipple with a downward facing opening that children can easily manipulate with their tongues. A set of flow control nipple inserts, used in conjunction with nipples with different-sized openings, increases the flow as the child grows.
The team was selected to present at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Cleft Palate Craniofacial Association. Professor Blemker recalls, “When the students described their new bottle design and testing methods at this conference of cleft palate clinicians, you could literally hear the members of the audience saying, ‘Wow! That is amazing!”