B.C. Industry News

Small sensor developed by UBC scientists transforms smartphone into life-saving medical device

May 12, 2014

Phone Oximeter can measure oxygen levels in blood, key to monitoring the health of pregnant women

By Gillian Shaw, Vancouver Sun

A small sensor plugged into a smartphone could mean the difference between life and death for pregnant women, their babies and for people suffering from pneumonia and other critical conditions.

At $40, the Phone Oximeter is an affordable alternative to pulse oximeters that can cost more than $1,000 — and are only found in hospitals and doctor’s offices, where the little plastic device that clamps on a patient’s finger is used to measure oxygen levels in the blood.

The Phone Oximeter, the brainchild of University of B.C. scientists, could soon be in the medicine cabinet in your home — as common as the household’s fever thermometer — if the creators of the device achieve their goal.

“I honestly believe the day will come when everybody will have a kit with a thermometer, a pulse oximeter and a blood pressure cuff at home,” said Mark Ansermino, director of research for pediatric anesthesia at B.C. Children’s Hospital and associate professor in UBC’s department of anesthesia. Ansermino developed the Phone Oximeter with Guy Dumont, UBC professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“My philosophy is that everybody needs to have one of these at home, but the potential is so much more. We are building predictive health care,” he said.

The spinoff company developing the Phone Oximeter, LionsGate Technologies (LGTmedical), received $2 million from the federal government through Grand Challenges Canada. It is taking orders from distributors, with the first iPhone Oximeters to be delivered in June. Consumers will be able to order it online later this spring.

LionsGate Technologies was spun off from UBC, the Child & Family Research Institute and B.C. Children’s Hospital.

“The technology has been extremely well received because it is a fully functioning, best-in-class oximeter at a lower price point,” said Tom Walker, president and CEO of LGTmedical. “We’re able to bring a lot more functionality for less cost — in some cases we’re only 20 per cent the price of comparable devices.”

Walker said using the smartphone enables the company to deliver affordable technology.

“As we move from an oximeter to blood pressure monitoring, to thermometers, we’re going to be able to come in at much better price points, because we’re leveraging the phone.”

For Ansermino, accessibility is key.

“I really want to make products that people — even in the most remote areas of the world — people will be able to afford to buy,” he said. “It’s really about the democratization of health care: how can we allow everybody to have the same level of health care and have technology enable that.”

In the developing world — where complications from pre-eclampsia, a condition in pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure, can kill women who don’t have ready access to medical facilities — detecting risk can be a life saver. Blood oxygen levels can be a powerful predictor of which women will develop potentially deadly complications, and the Phone Oximeter can detect pre-eclampsia complications with 80 per cent accuracy.

Complications from pre-eclampsia are the second-leading cause of maternal deaths globally, killing 76,000 women every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. A trial of the device, which has been underway for two years, involves 80,000 women in four countries, India, Pakistan, Mozambique and Nigeria.

“Lay health workers, with a minimum amount of health training, will be able to administer medications and refer women to a health facility,” Ansermino said of the screening of pregnant women. He estimates 200 to 300 women’s lives will be saved in the trial.

The Phone Oximeter uses a light sensor attached to the fingertip to measure blood oxygen levels and deliver the data to a smartphone, tablet or a laptop with easy-to-read numbers and symbols on the screen. It hooks up through the universal audio port, making it possible to use with any mobile device. The technology, which also measures heart and respiration rate, can be extended to other monitoring devices, such as a blood pressure cuff.

Another area it can mean the difference between life and death is with pneumonia, the leading killer of children under the age of five globally.

For patients in Vancouver, a Phone Oximeter reading may alert them to the need to call their doctor or head to the emergency. But in remote areas of Canada and the developing world, the device could be the link that delivers vital medical data to doctors who can help patients living hours and even days away from help.

Ansermino said the oximeter team is in the process of building predictive algorithms for children with pneumonia and he hopes to have an algorithm they can use by the end of this year. He said the reason pneumonia is a leading cause of death in young children is because they die at home, the pneumonia undetected.

“Pneumonia is just not recognized, it’s not picked up,” he said. “If we take a device and put it into the hands of community health workers, they can go around and screen children and they can really tell the difference between a cold and pneumonia.”



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