PhD candidate from uOttawa develops a smartwatch that can help save lives

Posted on Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Portrait of Azadeh Dastmalchi

When she was seven years’ old, Azadeh Dastmalchi told her brother that she wanted to become a renowned scientist like Thomas Edison. “He developed something that was very useful for everybody, and I too wanted to build something that would help a lot of people,” she says. Now this PhD candidate at the Faculty of Engineering has invented the VTLAB medical smartwatch, proof that Dastmalchi has stayed true to her childhood dream.

Women of Influence, an organization dedicated to workplace gender equality and women's advancement, recently named Dastmalchi as one of 25 top role models of 2021 for her ground-breaking wearable vital sign tracker. The smartwatch, which is produced by her company, VitalTracer Ltd., continuously monitors the wearer’s heart and respiratory rates, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and skin temperature. It can also track changes in the electrical activity of the wearer’s heart and in their blood circulation.

The data collected from the watch is analyzed by the VitalTracer app and can be confidentially stored on the Cloud or sent by Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to healthcare providers in hospitals and in senior’s residences.

“That’s where it can have the most impact,” says Dastmalchi. “A patient coming out of the ICU who has just undergone a surgical procedure, for example, needs to be closely monitored for infection. Caregivers would be able to monitor seniors without disrupting their daily activities and would be immediately alerted to any abnormalities that might put their health at risk.”

Most recently, Dastmalchi and her research team at VitalTracer developed the VT-19, a new smartwatch that tracks vital signs related to COVID-19 symptoms, such as elevated heart rate, low blood oxygen levels, elevated body temperature, and increased sleep duration. Any combination of these signals could prompt caregivers to administer a COVID test. Early detection of the virus could help save lives and limit community spread.

Azadeh Dastmalchi holding her smartwatch in the lab surrounded by researchers

Source: VitalTracer Ltd.

A topic close to her heart

Born in Iran and raised in the United Arab Emirates, Dastmalchi moved to Canada in 2008 to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. For her master’s thesis at uOttawa, Dastmalchi was looking at whether blood pressure could be measured using an artificial neural network.

“At the same time, in 2010, my dad was diagnosed with hypertension and he didn’t like the cuff-based blood pressure machines,” says Dastmalchi. “That motivated me to develop a new device for blood pressure because this cuff machine is like 100 years’ old. It was time to come up with something new.’”

The smartwatch is equipped with optical sensors that use red and infrared light to detect when blood vessels are expanding and contracting. By tracking this mechanical process and running the signals through an artificial neural network algorithm, a technique called photoplethysmography, healthcare providers can identify changes in blood volume, measure vital signs, and detect abnormalities in blood circulation.

Today, Dastmalchi is working on her PhD at uOttawa, while also taking steps to get regulatory approval from Health Canada and the FDA for her company’s devices. Unlike the Fitbit or the Apple and Samsung smartwatches, which also track certain vital signs, VitalTracer’s products are medical devices, says Dastmalchi, and therefore must meet a hospital’s gold standard.

“We’ve compared the results from our watch with the traditional blood pressure cuff machine, but any healthcare professional will tell you that the cuff doesn’t always provide accurate results,” she says. “That’s why we’re going to run clinical trials in the ICUs at McGill University Health Centre and the CHU Sainte-Justine hospitals in Montreal so we can prove that it’s as effective as the current invasive technique they use in hospitals — a catheter that goes directly to the blood.”

Dastmachi’s non-invasive technology has the potential to revolutionize prevention and early diagnosis of cardiovascular disease and COVID-19. But the potential applications of this hardware are virtually limitless.

The 36-year-old entrepreneur is currently in talks with other companies to collaborate on technology that could monitor symptoms of sleep apnea, dementia, cancer, and other health issues.

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