Breathe Easy: The students solving the problem of poor management of respiratory health conditions
UK National Winner of the James Dyson Award 2023, Pleural uses audio analysis and machine learning to clear lungs with confidence at home
September 13 2023
Pleural, this year’s UK National James Dyson Award winner tackles the problem of the lack of at home treatment and monitoring of those with chronic respiratory conditions struggling to access the appropriate care. Untreated mucus can lead to infections and exacerbations which increase the likelihood of hospitalisation and death. Some patients suffering from these conditions would be offered chest physiotherapy but would have to travel for treatment. Patients with COPD, cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis can also suffer from anxiety due to limited understanding of the development of their condition, so the team at Pleural developed a solution that could both provide effective treatment and regular condition monitoring at home.
Inhale, exhale. Pleural is an autonomous mucus management device for the 3.9 million Brits suffering from debilitating airway mucus. It uses intelligent analysis to provide the most effective treatment and monitoring to patients for relief and reduced infection risk.
The device administers chest physiotherapy according to best clinical practice, which is traditionally done manually by a physiotherapist. Pleural uses a silicone cup to apply a calculated force to the chest at particular frequencies to mobilise mucus from the lungs.
The team at Pleural realised a doctor’s finger-tapping percussion on a patient’s chest during auscultation generates impulse signals, which are intuitively interpreted alongside breathing sounds using a stethoscope to analyse the chest. This takes years of training but advances in machine learning have allowed the team of students at Pleural to train an AI to do most of the hard work. They discovered they could use the same percussive mechanism to provide the input for AI-powered auscultation and for the percussive chest clearance therapy itself, so clearance and analysis happen in tandem. Users can confidently perform airway clearance therapy at home, with the device providing guidance and progress tracking through the companion app to ensure thorough treatment.
The UK National Winners of the James Dyson Award and young inventors of Pleural: Daniel Hale, Will Eliot, Fergus Laidlaw and Yihan Dong (aged between twenty-five and thirty) met while studying a double masters in Innovation Design Engineering at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art in London. The group came to their course from different backgrounds and with different experiences, making it a dynamic grouping.
The winning team hope to get Pleural into the hands of those that need it, to make a real tangible impact on the lives of people living with conditions such as asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, and bronchiectasis. They hope to bring the product to market and are keen to help solve other challenges out in the world, both in the respiratory space and beyond.
Winning the national leg of the James Dyson Award will inject £5,000 into Pleural. This prize money will help Pleural produce a fully functional, technologically integrated prototype. This means creating a device that has in-built smart qualities that can carry out a full treatment process, generate data to be analysed by machine learning, and deliver insights on lung health via the app.
Daniel Hale, Engineering Lead of Pleural says: "Winning the James Dyson award means that we’ll be able to develop Pleural and take this product to those affected by mucus-related respiratory health conditions, impacting their lives for the better. The James Dyson Award represents the forefront of innovation to us, particularly in the UK, and has been something we’ve all tracked as long as we’ve been designers. It’s a huge honour that Pleural has been selected as the UK National Winner in 2023 to join many of the proposals we’ve admired over the years, and we look forward to developing Pleural further”.
Rumyana Dancheva, Senior Design Engineer at Dyson and James Dyson Award UK National Judge says: “Pleural targets a real-life problem with a compelling solution, which was well communicated through research, test data and physical prototypes. It was great to see that the development was driven by putting the user in the centre of the design. I am pleased that Pleural is this year’s UK national winner and I am very much looking forward to seeing how this project will develop over time.”
Dr Frankie Jackson-Spence, NHS Doctor and James Dyson Award UK National Judge says: “I was truly inspired by all the candidates entering the James Dyson Award. A huge well done to our deserving UK National Winners, Pleural. They have shown exceptional innovation and teamwork to get this invention to where it is. It has the potential to make a huge impact on a population level, with 1 in 5 of us experiencing respiratory disease. We have all become more conscious of our lung health, and I hope with the support of the James Dyson Award they can make a positive difference to many lives.”
The team at Pleural produced over 40 experimental prototypes: more than 10 to explore form factor, and at least 4 technical generations. Daniel, Will, Yihan and Fergus used an experimental process to identify emerging technologies that could potentially solve for key problem areas within respiratory conditions: prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The team quickly realised that treatment for many people with excess mucus was underserved. Rigs were created to test mucus mobilisation techniques, as well as developing a machine learning methodology to analyse the levels of mucus within the lungs.
The Pleural team also created several iterations of the percussion rigs to deliver a safe but effective physical impact to the chest. The team have worked on the development of Pleural for over a year and as students, have been forced to work in a lean and agile way without spending too much money on materials.
The start of the project was an intense and fast sprint, with many technical milestones being achieved in a short space of time over five months. In this time the team endured many late nights and hours put in to create something that would truly meet the needs of the people that would require this device. The months since then have been focussed on outreach and further customer discovery, bringing Pleural to potential users for further evaluation and insight discovery, as well as seeking advice on getting a better understanding on how Pleural itself might run as a business.
Pleural will progress to the international stage of the James Dyson Award and the winners Dan, Will, Fergus and Yihan aim to commercialise this product by producing a fully functional, technologically integrated prototype. This means creating a device that has in-built smart qualities that can carry out a full treatment process, generate data to be analysed by machine learning, and deliver insights on lung health via the app to allow the device to be accessed by those that need it.
The international top 20 shortlist will be announced on 18th October, and the international winners on 15th November.
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 Percentage calculated based on the COPD Foundation study on The Burden of Cough and Phlegm in People With COPD: A COPD Patient-Powered Research Network and projecting the findings on to UK respiratory condition numbers. https://journal.copdfoundation.org/jcopdf/id/1265/The-Burden-of-Cough-and-Phlegm-in-People-With-COPD-A-COPD-Patient-Powered-Research-Network-Study
 Calculated by Pleural based on the following report by the British Lung Foundation: http://allcatsrgrey.org.uk/wp/download/respiratory_diseases/PC-1601_-_Economic_burden_report_FINAL_8cdaba2a-589a-4a49-bd14-f45d66167795.pdf