Wireless Warning: Firm behind Band-Aid-like wearable joins Ebola fight, eyes other markets
At South By Southwest (SXSW) earlier this month, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) highlighted the MultiSense Memory patch – basically a smart Band-Aid – for its potential use in tackling global health issues like Ebola. (MultiSense is part of the STAMP2 program, short for Sensor Technology and Analytics to Monitor, Predict and Protect Ebola Patients, which was created by the Scripps Translational Science Institute with a grant from USAID.) The disposable patch is designed to enable doctors to track patients’ vital signs remotely, using Bluetooth. Here, Jeff Marshall, director of business development for Rhythm Diagnostic Systems, which makes the patch, answers a few questions about its genesis and potential.
Kyle Poplin: Why was the memory patch developed and how long did it take? What makes it special?
Jeff Marshall: The impetus for developing MultiSense, and founding Rhythm Diagnostic Systems, came when one of our founders had to undergo some cardiac diagnostic procedures. He immediately recognized that the systems could be radically improved with the technology of today. Talking with his cardiologist made it clear that the “state of the art” did not work well for either the patient or physician. Conventional Holter (portable electrocardiography, or ECG) monitoring devices are bulky with cumbersome wires, and limit daily activities such as dressing, showering and sleeping. From the physician’s standpoint, the existing systems often resulted in inconclusive data because of disconnected wires, etc. Furthermore, in diagnosing intermittent heart conditions, the time limits of monitoring often limited their utility. This led to a dinner meeting with Sam Eletr (who has a background in physics and founded Applied Biosystems and numerous other companies), Bruce O’Neil (cardiologist) and George Golda (an experienced engineer). They discussed ideas during the dinner and ended up sketching out the product idea that led to MultiSense on a napkin. From there, they gathered a few more engineers and founded Rhythm Diagnostic Systems in late 2012.
Over the next two years the team developed and refined the product. Starting with only a cardiac EKG signal, they added capabilities. The current system can measure EKG, heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration, blood oxygen percentage, temperature at chest surface, patient movement and patient position (standing, lying down, etc.). It provides a unique set of physiological monitoring capabilities in a small, unobtrusive form. MultiSense looks like a Band-Aid (4 inches x 1.2 inches x 1/8 inches) and is applied to the sternum. It can be worn for an extended period (typically five to seven days) while the patient goes about their daily activities – including showering. It is designed to be low-cost and disposable. Monitoring time can be extended by reapplying the strip with fresh adhesive after the initial five- to seven-day period.
The first version of MultiSense is designed for unattended collection of data. The physiological measures are stored in onboard memory and downloaded to a computer after removal. The second generation version of MultiSense is built with Bluetooth LE and streams the data to a smartphone or similar device in real time. Data can be processed and displayed locally on the smartphone and/or streamed to the web for processing and analysis.
KP: Why did Rhythm Diagnostic Systems decide to participate in the STAMP2 program? Did the company see a role for the memory patch in fighting Ebola before that program came about, or was that an unexpected opportunity?
JM: During development of MultiSense, contact was made with the Scripps Translational Science Institute. … They have helped provide feedback to improve MultiSense and conduct validation studies. The contact with Dr. Eric Topol and Dr. Steven Steinhubl at Scripps led to a clinical trial organized by the University of California, San Diego, and the Chopra Center where we were able to test MultiSense on 100 people. Data analysis in that clinical trial was done by PhysIQ, which aims to apply sophisticated data analysis capability to “track and integrate multiple vital signs to detect clinically meaningful changes against an individual baseline, rather than a population-based ‘norm.’”
Dr. Steinhubl organized the Scripps team, along with Rhythm Diagnostic Systems, PhysIQ and Sotera (with a reference set of biosensor capabilities), into the STAMP2 program to apply the collective technologies to the challenges of treating Ebola-infected patients (especially in the developing world) as well as monitoring potentially infected people. This led to the grant application to the USAID’s Ebola Grand Challenge and the nomination for the grant.
At RDS we were not focused on the specific idea of applying our technology to Ebola diagnosis and treatment. When Dr. Steinhubl described the project and asked us to join we saw the opportunity and we are delighted to be part of the team.
KP: What opportunities do you see for the memory patch in the developing world? In the rest of the world?
JM: As a start-up biosensor company located in the U.S. our natural focus is on developed-world applications for our technology. That said, in today’s global world, markets and opportunities are worldwide. We definitely see great potential for our product and technology with telemedicine in the developing world (this also applies to rural and underserved communities in the developed world). It is easy to imagine the low-cost MultiSense used to deliver better medical care in developing countries, leveraging the global telecommuncations/smartphone/cloud computing infrastructure. This could allow the expertise of, for example, developed-world cardiologists to serve isolated communities anywhere in the world.
KP: Have you formulated a business model for the patch? For example, will its prevalence in the developing world be a function of its success in higher-income countries?
JM: We are pursuing a variety of market opportunities for MultiSense. Some of these are mainstream medical markets such as cardiac diagnosis and monitoring. We are also pursuing using MultiSense for diagnosing sleep apnea and other sleeping disorders. There are also consumer types of applications such as fitness and general health monitoring and, in general, personal health. We are moving forward to address many potential applications worldwide. Our business strategy is to deliver a high-quality, low-cost, biosensor to companies that can use our technology in their existing or planned markets. The product has been designed from the beginning for high-volume manufacturing which will drive down the cost. It is too early to talk about specifics of pricing, but we will be using manufacturing volumes to make the technology as accessible as possible. Making contact with the right partners will allow us to deliver to such markets as the developing world.
KP: What has Rhythm Diagnostic Systems learned from its work on the Ebola crisis that might be of use going forward?
JM: The more people we talk with, the more ideas we hear. Ebola patient monitoring is one of those. … It is also exciting for us as technologists to be involved in helping with the world’s response to infectious disease outbreaks such as the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.