In his 32 years at Ulster University, Jim McLaughlin has done his time in the healthcare sensor industry. Among his many spinout companies is one called Intelesens, which develops intelligent systems to monitor patients’ vital signs.
In his 32 years at Ulster University, Jim McLaughlin has done his time in the healthcare sensor industry. Among his many spinout companies is one called Intelesens, which develops intelligent systems to monitor patients’ vital signs. “I suppose the dream we always had was to take that wearable vital sign system and add other systems to it,” says McLaughlin, who imagines a device capable of measuring everything from blood pressure to spirometry. But that isn’t his only source of inspiration – he’s also drawing on the computing power of a standard mobile phone, especially with regard to low-energy Bluetooth communication between devices. “We knew the technology was right,” he says, “so we were just looking for an application.”
That application was the medical tricorder, a device with personal as well as practical significance for McLaughlin. “My father died in a hospital when he was 65, and for three or four days he didn’t get any proper analysis done. I always look back on that and think that, if there had been rapid diagnostics, his life could have been saved. When I went into research, that thought drove me the whole way through – the concept that we could have rapid point-of-care diagnostics, rapid diagnostics from the home to the hospital.” The technology hits close to home going forward, too. “My mum is currently ill with atrial fibrillation, so I would see the benefits in caring for her. And as the elderly sector of our community grows, there’s definitely a time coming when hospitals will not be able to cope. So we’ll need improved early warning and monitoring systems to get patients out of hospitals faster, or stop them being hospitalized in the first place.” So it’s with the goal of saving lives and empowering patients that McLaughlin and his team took on the challenge of creating a multifunctional medical diagnostic device.
The heart of the tricorder that SCANADU/Intelesens has developed for the Qualcomm XPRIZE Competition is its mobile phone software. The app asks questions about a user’s symptoms, then references them against statistics based on age, gender and other characteristics to narrow down the possibilities. Then the investigative process begins – touching the device to your head measures temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and SpO2; placing a patch on your body takes an electrocardiogram and a respiration rate; peripherals can examine other health aspects such as spirometry; and finally, a palm-sized reader that was developed by the Ulster University can run a variety of blood and urine tests for problems ranging from diabetes to pneumonia. The tricorder can even recommend next steps once it reaches a diagnosis.
The merging of the two teams has been a boon in many ways – whereas Intelesens funded and created many of the peripherals and technical aspects, SCANADU provided the noninvasive measuring device, the user interface, and much of the app development and design. Both groups have brought not only unique skills, but also unique connections and perspectives to the table – while SCANADU has younger members with energy and enthusiasm, Intelesens brings in the experience and guidance of people who have spent their lives in industry. But there is a downside; combining an American team with one from Northern Ireland results in a lot of long-distance collaboration… and a workday that lasts from six in the morning until well after midnight. With challenges like those to overcome, it’s clear that both teams are dedicated to making their tricorder a reality, no matter what it takes.
It’s not just the end product that might benefit patients, though. McLaughlin thinks that one of the reasons his team’s device has made it into the final eight is because of the individual technologies they’re developing. “From SCANADU, there’s some nice noninvasive blood pressure technology,” he says, “and from Intelesens, we’re seeing some mature wearable technology.” By this point in the project, every participant has learned a lot, and has also had the opportunity to teach. Biochemists have learned coding; engineers have learned medicine; and, McLaughlin feels, all of this holds promise for the future. “I think we’re about to see a whole generation of powerful apps for everyday life – be it in healthcare or other uses. So some of the platforms we’re developing now will be very suitable for that.”
With recent advances in portable technology, McLaughlin sees his team’s vision coming ever closer to reality. Between phones developed for wearable devices, low-energy Bluetooth for instant connections, and increasingly user-friendly apps, he feels it’s just a matter of time before a wide swathe of traditional systems can be replaced by electronic versions. Though there are still snags to be worked out – data security, for instance, or simply the challenge of convincing people to give up their old methods – team SCANADU/Intelesens is confident that the world is waiting for their tricorder.
While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.