Smartphone app reads blood oxygen levels to hospital standards, advances to global obstetrics tests

March 9th, 2014
Private and public investors are injecting $2 million into a Canadian mobile health innovation that offers hope of preventing thousands of deaths and improving the health of expectant mothers, newborns and children throughout the developing world.

LionsGate Technologies (LGTmedical), a Vancouver-based social enterprise, has secured its first major financial backers to scale up development of the Phone Oximeter™, an app and medical sensor that turns a non-specialist, community-level health worker's smartphone, tablet computer or laptop into an affordable and simple but sophisticated medical-grade diagnostic tool typically available in the developing world only in some hospitals.

Mr. Irfhan Rajani, CEO of Vancouver-based Coleco Investments, leads a $1 million angel investment in the device, to be matched with a $1 million grant from Grand Challenges Canada—the first such investment under a new $10 million strategic partnership between Grand Challenges Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD).

"Our Government is promoting innovative approaches to addressing the world's most urgent needs in both global health and international development, including leveraging private sector investment and partnerships that focus on results," said the Hon. Christian Paradis, Canadian Minister of International Development and La Francophonie. "This newest investment is a precise fit with the Prime Minister's global commitment, through the Muskoka Initiative, to improve the health and lives of mothers and children in the world's poorest countries."

Developed by scientists Drs. Mark Ansermino, Guy Dumont and Peter von Dadelszen of the University of British Columbia, the device measures blood oxygen levels through a light sensor attached to a person's fingertip. This technique is known as pulse oximetry.

The Phone Oximeter™, using a predictive score, can accurately identify an estimated 80% of cases of pregnant women at risk of life-threatening complications due to high blood pressure. The condition, pre-eclampsia, is one of three leading causes of maternal mortality. Each year, about 76,000 of an estimated 10 million pregnant women worldwide who develop pre-eclampsia die from it and related complications.

The number of fetus and infant deaths due to these disorders is estimated at more than 500,000. "That equates to over 1,600 deaths of pregnant young women and babies every day - an unacceptable burden - and more than 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries - an issue of social justice," said Dr. von Dadelszen.

The Phone Oximeter™ can also reveal dangerously low oxygen levels in patients with pneumonia, which kills more than 1 million children annually.

The $40 target price will make it 80% less costly than any other device capable today of meeting high-level medical standards.

Tests to fine-tune the device will involve monitoring blood-oxygen levels of athletes in training, allowing developers to fast-track its preliminary use. Longer term medical trials of the mobile application and its pre-eclampsia predictive capability will involve 80,000 women in four countries: India, Pakistan, Mozambique and Nigeria.

"This is a critical step in achieving our goal of having a pulse oximeter in every home," said Dr. Mark Ansermino. Dr. Guy Dumont adds: "Through innovative engineering, we have been able to tap into the computing power of smartphones to produce medical-grade, low-cost monitoring systems amenable to widespread usage in low- and medium-resource countries."

"Not only will the Phone Oximeter™ address a critical global health need, LGTmedical will create jobs and economic opportunities in Canada and elsewhere," said Mr. Rajani. "As an impact-oriented investor, this is a win-win situation. I commend the Government of Canada, through Grand Challenges Canada, for creating this impact investment opportunity, which would not have otherwise occurred."

Noting the poignant timing of the announcement, right after International Women's Day (March 8), Grand Challenges Canada's Chief Executive Officer Dr. Peter Singer said: "This life-saving device is the 'double-double' of global health – it leverages both the global ubiquity of mobile phones and the know-how and financial resources of the private sector. We hope this innovation will move swiftly from its invention in a Vancouver lab to villages around the globe, creating jobs in Canada while saving lives around the world."

Grand Challenges Canada's $1 million contribution comes from funds available under a new $10 million strategic partnership agreement announced today between Grand Challenges Canada and DFATD. The new funds will accelerate the scale up of highly promising health innovations in developing countries. It will also enable innovators to access funding, technical and business support and other resources to accelerate their transition to scale.

Said Tom Walker, President and CEO of LGTmedical: "Thanks to this private and public investment, we can produce a tool with the potential to save the lives of women and children in remote, resource-poor communities around the world. We encourage other impact investors to join us in this landmark venture."

"This innovation by LGTmedical is a great example of how we stimulate bold ideas with big impact in global health while mobilizing private sector partners," said Grand Challenges Canada's Chairman Joseph L. Rotman." Tackling global health while creating jobs is the best of both worlds."

After initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the innovation was subsequently awarded a seed grant in 2011 by Saving Lives at Birth, a partnership between Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), the Government of Norway and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Grand Challenges Canada extended additional funding in 2012 through a proof-of-concept grant.

This Phys.org Science News Wire page contains a press release issued by an organization mentioned above and is provided to you “as is” with little or no review from Phys.Org staff.

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