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Medical research often involves such high-tech equipment and complex drugs that researchers tend to miss some small things.

"Sometimes we don't think about simple innovations that can have a powerful impact," says Joan Engebretsen, an associate professor and maternal-child nurse at the University of Texas School of Nursing.Engebretsen and Diane Wardell, also an associate professor, have invented just such a low-tech solution - a pacifier designed specifically for premature infants weighing less than 5 pounds.

The university has patented the device and is now negotiating with several companies interested in licensing the pacifier design so they can make and sell it.

The idea for this invention came about at a meeting between faculty and maternal-child nurses when a nurse spoke about the need for a pacifier for low-birthweight babies, Engebretsen says.

While pacifiers are available for small babies, they pop out of the infants' mouths, the nurse said. Neonatal nurses often stuff cotton into bottle nipples designed for small infants, but these could pose safety problems.

Instead of simply taking the standard pacifier and reducing it in size, "we took a different approach," Engebretsen said. "Ultrasound photos of babies still in the womb show that babies often suck their thumbs before birth," Wardell said.

The two nurses turned to the University of Texas Dental School for help in making a plaster cast of the thumb and palate of a premature infant, and "they fit together like a lock and key," she said. They also hired a bioengineering firm to help with the design and proto-types.

The result is a long, thin pacifier with an upward angle, modeled after a baby's thumb.

The pacifier was tested on several dozen premature infants, some weighing as little as 2 pounds, at Hermann Hospital and Texas Children's Hospital. It was compared to a pacifier typically used for tiny infants, which is a small version of the normal pacifier.

Premature babies "latch on to this one in a second," says William Tudor, director of Hermann's neonatal critical care services. "It helps calm them down."