Now that electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors have become comfortably wearable for adults, enabling more frequent heart monitoring than was possible outside of medical settings, researchers are preparing to take the technology to the next level. Belgian R&D firm Imec and spin-off Bloomlife announced today that they have prototyped “the world’s first wearable 5-channel ECG chip” for accurate continuous monitoring of fetal heart rate and mobility — a product they expect will give pregnant women and their doctors better access to key details about developing babies.

Imec says its BeatleIC chip is small enough to be installed in a wearable patch and will be able to detect fetal heart signals starting in pregnancy week 20 — halfway through the gestation process. Unlike clinical solutions, which are focused on spot-checking or contraction monitoring, the chip consumes so little power that it can run continuously for roughly one week on a coin-sized battery. Sensors will simultaneously record “all perinatal health-related signals” and promise high accuracy of fetal ECG data, despite very low signal levels.

Those differentiators are especially significant when considering the challenge of acquiring fetal ECG information, compared with adult ECGs. The latest Apple Watch, for instance, provides one-channel ECG monitoring for 30 seconds per scan, assuming you hold your finger against the Watch’s side while its bottom electrode maintains contact with your wrist. Imec’s system will apparently be able to pull data continuously from deep inside the wearer’s body, conceivably providing up-to-the-minute information if something significant changes.

BeatleIC was developed by the companies with partial funding from Belgium’s Flanders Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, following Bloomlife’s release of a wearable contraction monitor. They are now planning a trial to clinically validate the chip’s measurements ahead of consumer and medical device releases.

“We plan to launch not only a consumer product — consisting of a sensor device integrated [into] a wearable patch and a smartphone application — but also a risk management platform that can be used by medically qualified staff,” said Bloomlife CEO Eric Dy. “We are excited about the significant impact of these advancements as we continue to work toward our mission to bring much overdue innovation and solutions to help solve the biggest challenges in prenatal care, including preterm birth.”

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