One of the three big winners of the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) is a team called AWARE (Acoustic Waveform Respiratory Evaluation) that has created a smartphone app enabling patients to monitor their lung function at home. It’s intended for people with lung disorders like asthma, COPD and Covid-19.

“I like to think of it as an ultrasonic sonar to map your airways, using your smartphone,” says Dr. Erick Forno, who leads the AWARE team. Forno is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

The Pitt Innovation Challenge just awarded $485,000 to support new solutions to perplexing healthcare problems. The event, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, is open to teams that include at least one Pitt faculty member.

AWARE also received a $25,000 pandemic bonus for being so relevant to the current Covid crisis.

Using the speakers and microphones built into smartphones, AWARE sends ultrasound waves through a patient’s airways as they breathe through a mouthpiece. They reflect off the airway surfaces and are sensed by the microphones. AWARE uses machine learning algorithms and signal processing techniques to map the airways and map any narrowing or obstruction.

It was developed to solve a problem that Forno, a pediatric pulmonologist, spotted in his clinic.

“A lot of times, when patients come to my clinic, they feel okay, 100% normal, and then we do lung function testing, they’re at 65% — and they realize they’re sicker than they thought,” says Forno. “The problem is we only get that objective information when they come to the clinic. So a lot of patients can go several months or sometimes more than a year without any objective lung functioning testing.

“How can we improve that so we can have more objective measurements that can be done more regularly?” he asks.

When the pandemic hit, and virtual telehealth visits became the norm, Forno had to rely on what parents noticed about their children’s breathing. AWARE gives them a more accurate analysis of their breathing patterns.

Forno foresees patients using the app to monitor their lung function at home, noticing a drop in oxygen levels and calling their doctor.

When it comes to Covid, AWARE can be used to detect worsening problems in patients’ airways, and/or monitor their recovery. For one, it keeps risk lower by minimizing trips to the hospital — but there are more benefits.

“Potentially, it could help us analyze data from people who get infected, and see if there’s some kind of early lung function (measurements) that can predict who’s going to do better and who’s going to do worse,” says Forno.

“Also, when they go home from the hospital, it can help us monitor lung function as they recover from the disease. That’s another area that we don’t really know exactly what happens.”

Winning the award will help the AWARE team begin to recruit healthy volunteers, to get a baseline of data about healthy functioning lungs. Once they have parameters for normal lung functioning, they plan to test it on those who are sick to measure the differences.

“The third stage is within the same patients; we need to see what their lung function looks like when they’re stable, and when they start to get sick,” says Forno.

The AWARE team also includes Wei Chen, associate professor of pediatrics, biostatistics and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, and Wei Gao, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.