PhD candidate’s invention was called ‘bulls—t’, but can now detect early signs of COVID-19

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 34-year-old Azadeh Dastmalchi found a new function for her existing work on a medical-grade smartwatch to detect and monitor for early virus symptoms.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 34-year-old Azadeh Dastmalchi found a new function for her existing work on a medical-grade smartwatch to detect and monitor for early virus symptoms.

Dastmalchi’s start-up, Montreal-based VitalTracer, developed the VTLAB smartwatch, which combines biosensors and artificial intelligence to measure human vital signs, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, body temperature, electrocardiogram (ECG) and photoplethysmography (PPG) signals.

This “all in one” device does not need any external components, like a blood pressure cuff or ECG halter, to conduct the monitoring.

“It measures all of them, sends it with bluetooth or WiFi to their smartphone, or directly to the online cloud,” Dastmalchi explained. “For hospitals, we can localize the cloud for them to use their own server.”

“This is very important [for keeping] the confidential information of the patient in a hospital.”

Now Dastmalchi, a PhD candidate in the department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Ottawa and CEO and co-founder of VitalTracer, will be presented the Mitacs Social Entrepreneur Award on Sept. 2.

‘We need to do something for this COVID’

It all started 10 years ago when Dastmalchi’s father was diagnosed with hypertension, instructed by his doctor to check his blood pressure three times a day and take pills daily. He used to complain that the pressure was too painful, which resulted in him not always following the doctor’s orders.

As a caregiver for him, Dastmalchi tried to find a smartwatch on the market that would be able to monitor her father’s blood pressure but there was nothing available. That’s when she started conceptualizing the project, starting during her Masters program and into her PhD.

After losing her father at the age of 62, Dastmalchi was particularly impacted by the tragedy that struck long-term care homes earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I suffer for having lack of parents so I feel so bad,” she said. “We need to do something for this COVID.”

This led to Dastmalchi to look into symptoms of COVID-19, which was particularly difficult for a novel virus, but she determined that there is a connection between the coronavirus and abnormalities in vital signs, especially a drop in oxygen level or hypoxia.

“When the oxygen in the blood drops it doesn't have a symptom, that's why they call it a silent killer,” she explained.

Different studies on COVID-19 found that people infected with the virus might experience a higher heart rate, a drop in blood pressure and lack of sleep.

“We have all those sensors to estimate them and especially by continuously monitoring all these vital signs, we could alarm the healthcare provider or the nurses in the senior home that this specific senior has abnormalities,” Dastmalchi explained. “They can send him or her to test for COVID or check with their own medical device, like a [blood pressure cuff] or thermometer or so on.”

For this COVID-19 component, Dastmalchi needs to find a grant to run this pilot study but thanks to Mitacs, $150,000 has been provided to support research and development, postdoctoral fellow salaries and PhD students.

VitalTracer, for its broader use, is set to begin clinical trials in 2021 for Health Canada and FDA approval but the company is currently manufacturing 200 units. Dastmalchi also thanks Quebec’s Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation for providing a $500,000 grant to support two clinical trials through two companies.

Accuracy of the results will be tested with different populations, including the elderly and infants. Dastmalchi said the use for infants would be for post-surgery monitoring.

“When they are premature infants, they need to continuously monitor their vital signs after ICU as well,” she said. “Dr. Philippe Jouvet said that this is very proper for infants and let's do a clinical trial in my hospital [Ste-Justine Hospital in Montreal], and I was like yes, of course, let's do it.”

‘They need to change their perspective’

Although Dastmalchi has achieved this great success for the project, she remembers a time when it seemed like it may not move forward. She revealed that her proposal was rejected six different times, and at one point was told that it was “bulls—t” and it was not going to happen.

“I cried for a week [from] this word in front of me,” Dastmalchi said. “But then I show our senior medical doctors, who do not believe in a new technology, that they need to change their perspective.”

She said that she thought of her rejections as encouragement and challenged herself to prove them wrong.

“So if anyone believes that they can do it, just don't listen to discouragement and take that [in] reverse,” Dastmalchi advises to young people looking to pursue new ideas in the medical field.

Now that she is receiving this prestigious Mitacs award, she said it was a “huge surprise” but still highlights that it was the first nonprofit organization that supported the project financially, including research and development.

“In the medical area, the most expensive thing is [research and development], paying salaries to postdoctoral and PhD students,” she said. “I am proud of myself and my team, and our company, that we could really do something good for parents, beloved ones and for society.”