Science & Tech

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Azadeh Dastmalchi is a Ph.D student at the U of O, and has created a smartwatch capable of detecting early signs of the virus

University of Ottawa Ph.D Student and  CEO/co-founder of VitalTracer, Azadeh Dastmalchi, has used her smartwatch invention to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Developed by Dastmalchi and her team, the watch is able to monitor vital signs including, skin temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen levels in the blood. The ability to monitor oxygen levels in the blood in particular has allowed for the smart watch to detect early signs of hypoxia, or low amounts of oxygen in one’s blood, which can be used to detect early symptoms of COVID-19.

Dastmalchi is currently pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering with a focus on smart, wearable, medical devices. She was first interested in becoming a scientist as a child, “When I was seven years old, my older brother asked me what do you want to be in the future? I told him that I wanted to be a very big, famous scientist like Einstein.”

This sparked an early interest in science. “I found that if I took biomedical engineering for the rest of my life, then there is a very good opportunity to help people in a big way with devices that can help people.”

She first began creating this watch back in 2010, back when smart watches were not at the forefront of technology. 

“It was very hard to write a proposal, because in 2010, it was a very new concept to use an AI [artificial-intelligence] to monitor blood pressure. So no one believed I could do it. I found a very good supervisor to accept my proposal and I asked him not to pay me anything, just be my supervisor, I’m going to prove that I can make it,”` said Dastmalchi. 

After proving her idea was feasible, she was provided an Ontario graduate scholarship, an award scholarship, as well as grants to help fund her company. 

The early revelations in the watches ability to detect symptoms of COVID-19 has led the team to begin working on developing this smartwatch for the target demographic of elderly individuals, and trials have started in nearby nursing homes. The hope for this watch is to best assist a team in monitoring elderly individuals by checking their vital signs, and monitoring any events like falls or spikes in their vitals. 

With COVID-19, the team hopes that the device will allow nursing homes to detect any early signs of the virus in seniors and provide a method to best monitor patients. On the vital tracer website it states that the VT19’s goal is “to target robust isolation measures to high-probability cases and preventing further community spread.”

The smartwatch works by monitoring the users vital signs, and stores this data into charts using MATLAB. The information is sent to either an application or to a computer using bluetooth technology. The benefit of this approach compared to a device like an Apple Watch is that it can be localized to an environment like a hospital which can deter hackers, and provide security for users. 

The smartwatch itself is powered by a lithium ion battery and can either sport a touchscreen with the VT19 model or a smaller display showcasing graph’s and analytics depicting the users blood pressure with the VTLab model. One notable aspect is the small amount of storage, at a size of 16 megabytes, the watch is impressively able to store patient data and send it to a parent device using cloud computing or bluetooth. 

When it comes to battery life, the watch can be run in a mode where vital signs are only measured at particular points of the day, so it can last without charge for up to a week. 

Dastmalchi and her team are working on running trails and getting user feedback by running tests at senior homes to learn if there are any concerns with the watches. This will allow the team to incrementally improve their design and focus their process on a user oriented design. 

The team is also working on having the watch use AI to measure blood pressure and have SPO2 calibration. When asked in particular what forms of AI are present on the device, Dastmalchi states there is “an artificial neural network and deep learning in [the] technology for measuring blood pressure, and we also have a genetic algorithm to best optimize our results.”

At the time of publication, both models are available for pre-order at a price of $1,000. “Our ideal case is the value dropped to around $250. But right now, we are only selling to the clinical trial,” said Dastmalchi. Despite being early technology, the team wishes to get the price even further down. 

Another important aspect to consider is the multifunctionality of the device, as it is able to produce usable data to its users, as well it monitors vitals that would usually require a multitude of devices. 

Both VitalTracer devices are in the process of being approved by the Federal Drug Administration and Health Canada, and the team has been working on getting all of the necessary certifications to allow the device to be used in the medical industry. 

When asked about any other uses for this technology, Dastmalchi noted “ for post surgery monitoring, we are going to use a patch on a chest in a hospital. This is a very useful application for use in children’s hospitals and we are going to test this clinical trial at Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Justine in Montreal.”  

The patch in question would be used for blood glucose monitoring which would allow doctors to view blood sugar levels at any time and be notified if anything is out of the ordinary. 

The main focus of these devices will be in the medical sector, and would allow for a less intrusive method of monitoring for patients. 

Dastmalchi and her team continue to work on new devices and innovations, and hope to have the smartwatch approved by the FDA in September 2021.