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Researchers’ app could aid pregnant women in the developing world

Mark Ansermino helped develop the Phone Oximeter, a program that measures the oxygen content in blood.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When Mark Ansermino and Peter von Dadelszen went to Washington last summer, they had their hopes set on a $2-million prize.

The medical researchers from B.C., who have devised a way to use cellphones to measure the oxygen content in blood, were among 19 finalists who had earlier been granted $250,000 to develop their ideas.

They were counting on the top prize to push their invention, the Phone Oximeter, out of the lab and into the hands of millions of people in the Third World. In the end, the big money, granted by a collection of charitable foundations, didn't come their way – but Dr. Ansermino said the idea is still very much alive despite missing out on the funding.

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"We are still going to make this happen," he said in an interview recently, noting that the inventors have just had a paper accepted by PLOS Medicine, one of the top scientific journals in the world.

"We showed pulse oximetry significantly improved our ability to detect women who were likely to develop life-threatening complications [from] high blood pressure in pregnancy." Dr. Ansermino said of the research paper.

He and Dr. von Dadelszen, who are both clinician scientists at the Child & Family Research Institute and associate professors at the University of British Columbia, have joined forces with LionsGate Technologies. The Vancouver company is raising funds to push the project forward.

The first step, said Dr. Ansermino, will be to develop a device for the use of extreme athletes who need to keep a close watch on blood-oxygen levels during intensive training sessions. That instrument, which won't have to go through medical trials because it won't be classified as a medical instrument, should be out in the spring.

"I know it's all going to happen," he said of his dream of getting the Phone Oximeter out on the market. "It's just [a matter of] taking that last little step. It's come a long way from having this cool, little idea to having a company that will actually have a commercial product by February or March."

Medical testing for the Phone Oximeter will take time, but the long-term goal is to get approvals for the instrument during medical trials Dr. von Dadelszen will be doing in four countries, involving 80,000 women.

Dr. Ansermino said preliminary research has already established how effective pulse oximetry is in detecting early signs of hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen levels.

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"We can predict the number of women who are going to get complications by about 80 per cent. So it's a very significant improvement," he said.

The Phone Oximeter uses pulse oximetry, a method which shoots light waves through a patient's finger tip to determine blood oxygen levels, and it marries that technology with software on a cellphone or tablet. The invention means a smartphone can be used by a non-specialist health-care worker in place of the more complicated and more expensive devices that now can only be found in hospitals.

"Most maternal deaths from conditions like pre-eclampsia … occur in the developing world," said Dr. Ansermino in an e-mail. "Health facilities and trained medical personnel are scarce in these settings. The idea is to empower front-line health-care workers in the community to identify at-risk patients [and] provide appropriate referral and/or treatment. The Phone Oximeter leverages wide penetration of mobile technology in the developing world."

Globally, about 6,000 women die every year from pre-eclampsia, which occurs during pregnancy and is related to high blood pressure.

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