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A collaboration between the Physics and Cardiovascular Medicine Departments at Oxford University has developed a low-cost, hand-held device to help detect signs of cardiovascular and other diseases, which is now being tested in clinical studies.

The handheld device developed by the team for monitoring cardiovascular disease symptoms.

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) involve disorders of the heart and blood vessels and are the leading causes of death world-wide. In the UK, nearly 170,000 people die of CVDs each year, accounting for a quarter of all deaths and costing the country £9 billion in direct healthcare expenditure (see the British Heart Foundation factsheet).

A key tool for both research and treatment of CVDs are methods to measure changes to the network of blood vessels connecting the heart with organs and tissues in the body. Although such changes are detectable through medical imaging, current methods are expensive and require specialist knowledge to operate. Furthermore, the smallest vessels are not visible to methods such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

The team had developed a prototype device which could capture in vivo images of human blood vessels in the upper ear. The low-cost handheld device was constructed from inexpensive components and used a web interface to view and annotate images.

ESPRC IAA Technology funding, awarded in 2021, enabled the team to greatly improve the performance and capabilities of the early device. This included upgrades to the imaging sensor to increase image contrast, and the addition of a user-controllable focus and a redesign of the optics to reduce imaging aberrations, all of which have increased the sensitivity and performance of the device. Improvements were also made to the clamp mechanism and user handling, guided by the experience of the clinicians trialling the device, so that the needs of real end-users could be considered.

A patent was filed for the device in 2021 with Dr Bentine and Dr Lapidaire listed as inventors. Since then, the device has undergone further development and testing through studies funded by the British Heart Foundation, with further funding secured for future trials through awards from the MRC and Oxford University’s MLSTF awards (MR/X50273X/1).

Dr Bentine is now working full-time funded by a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship to develop a university spin-out, in collaboration with Dr Lapidaire, that will commercialise the technology. The team is also exploring future applications for the device in the diagnosis and monitoring of hypertensive pregnancies and pre-eclampsia.

Dr Bentine comments: ‘IAA funding was crucial in allowing all this to happen. Although the potential impact of the device is huge, it was difficult to access resources from the usual funders in Physics or Life Sciences, as the underpinning science is already well understood but a prototype of the device had not yet been proven through clinical studies. This IAA money provided a way to exploit a well-understood physical concept to produce a new tool and was essential in allowing us to develop its performance to a Technology Readiness Level where human studies on a larger scale are possible.’

Bentine continues: ‘Detecting small vessel lesions and atherosclerosis and enabling monitoring of the disease early will help treat cardiovascular disease before major events such as heart attacks or strokes have occurred. This should impact the way we diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease, shifting the diagnosis and intervention to earlier in the disease process, which is both cheaper and more effective at reducing morbidity and saving lives than action at a later stage.

‘Affordability has been a driving principle in the design of our device and our ultimate goal is to develop a low-cost tool for medical diagnosis and monitoring, which will allow earlier diagnosis and more effective and efficient treatment, particularly in low-resource contexts. The portability of our hand-held device means it can also be used in contexts where people are unable to travel to larger facilities, again allowing more equitable access to diagnosis and treatment for cardiovascular disease.’

Further information

Dr Elliot Bentine holds a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship at the Department of Physics

Dr Winok Lapidaire is a postdoctoral fellow at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine and is a Junior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College

AuRa (Auricle Raman Imaging Tool) was Funded by EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (Technology Fund)