B.C. Industry News

UBC awarded $9 million in grants for 10 tech projects, including heart-monitoring shirt

January 9, 2014

By Gillian Shaw, Vanocuver Sun

Five years from now a cardiac patient leaving a Vancouver hospital could be wearing a shirt that delivers real-time heart monitoring to medical specialists.

If anything goes amiss, an instant alert could warn the patient to head to emergency or summon an ambulance.

It’s a future that came one step closer to reality Thursday with the announcement by Greg Rickford, minister of state for science and technology, awarding $9 million in grants for 10 projects at the University of B.C. from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Funding will be used to further research in a number of areas, including wearable health monitoring and solar power-generating fabric for clothing and curtains.

The UBC projects are among 77 research programs across 23 Canadian universities that received $43 million in grants.

Wearable technology created a buzz this week at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with manufacturers showing off smart watches, fitness monitors and other devices.

At UBC, researchers are collaborating with companies, including local start-up ReFleX Wireless Inc. — a UBC spinoff founded by three computer engineering grads — in nanofibre technology they say will provide stretchable, more flexible and less costly solutions to integrating electronics into textiles than those currently available.

Among the NSERC grants is $514,000 for a UBC project led by Peyman Servati, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, that is creating textiles that can collect solar energy and power electronic such as cellphones.

Another project led by Servati is receiving $516,000 for the development of clothing, such as shirts or gloves, that can monitor a patient’s health.

“This is preliminary work; the grant that was given to us will help us to make it much better,” said Servati in a tour of his lab, where research associate Saeid Soltanian demonstrated how e-textiles could power an LED.

The “main differentiation” between UBC’s technology and other similar products, said Servati, is that “the entire thing will be seamlessly integrated fabric. It makes them more comfortable and lower cost.”

The challenge, Soltanian said, is in creating conductors that are both transparent and stretchable. Using nanofibers one hundred times thinner than human hair, UBC researchers have created a transparent network of conductive fibres that can be incorporated into fabric and used to harvest solar power for batteries and to power LEDs.

Soltanian said the UBC technology has produced the best results in stretchability tests to date.

While it’s not yet incorporated into commercial products, asked about washability, Soltanian said the nanofibers are very stable in water.

“You will have all the options,” he said, of uses for the e-textiles. “You can charge your mobile, it can be used for warming up, it can be used for different things.

In another part of the lab, a demonstration showed how health monitoring clothing can track such signs as respiratory and heart rates and movement, including lumbar spine monitoring and hand tremors in Parkinson’s patients.

Carol Lee, a co-founder of ReFleX Wireless Inc. and a UBC computer engineering grad, said the wearable monitoring solutions are the next step for her company, which has a project in a Thailand hospital where patients are fitted with temporary devices they use several times a day after they leave hospital.

“Ours is temporary, wearable short-term monitoring several times a day,” she said. “This is more for chronic disease monitoring where patients need to have long-term monitoring without having to have assistance.

“With radial pulse monitoring, you can get a heart rate so if it is elevating or the wave form is not regular, then that may indicate a heart attack.”

Dr. Kendall Ho, founding director of UBC’s eHealth Strategy Office and a practicing emergency medicine specialist, said the health monitoring fabric being developed will help patients not only in the management of chronic diseases but also in disease prevention.

“For example, I work in the emergency department, someone comes in who may have fainted. One of the questions is whether it is a heart rhythm problem,” he said.

“These wearable fabrics would allow us to put that on the patient during his or her hospital stay, allow us to send them home and actually have very close monitoring for the heart rate, without the patient carrying a whole bunch of equipment with them.

“We can actually provide better care for our patients, so this is really exciting stuff.”

At $9 million, which includes $4.8 million in renewed funding for a second five-year period for UBC’s RES’EUA WaterNet, the first inter-university network developing clean drinking water solutions for rural and First Nations communities, UBC received the largest number of grants of any Canadian institution among those announced, according to UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope.

The remaining UBC grants are related to cloud-based gaming, the pulp and paper industry, the ecosystem role of Pacific herring, energy efficiency and others.


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