Firm wears heart on its sleeve

Firm wears heart on its sleeve
Oisín McGrath

An Irish company has developed a wrist band to detect serious heart conditions.

A biomedical engineering graduate is developing a wristband device to detect a dangerous heart rhythm condition, after he was left without a diagnosis for 13 years.

Oisín McGrath’s Galenband arose from a masters thesis project at NUI Galway and his own experience of suffering ‘scary’ symptoms from about five years old.

“My heart would jump from 60 beats per minute to around 200 and then back down again after maybe 10 seconds to a minute or so.”

He attended specialists across the country in search of a diagnosis but “had no luck because the go-to method when heart rhythm abnormalities are suspected is to prescribe a monitor”.

Monitors are generally prescribed for one to two days or for up to a week.

But he says because his symptoms were intermittent and he had no structural abnormalities, that despite 11 different heart monitors and numerous ultrasounds and echograms, nothing showed up.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm abnormality and one of the leading causes of heart failure and stroke.

Mr McGrath says: “You don’t want to rely on luck when you’re dealing with a heart rhythm abnormality that can cause death and serious debilitation.”

He realised that the only reasonable way to be sure of detecting symptoms that occur irregularly is to monitor for a longer period. 

The Galenband is designed to monitor patients for up to 90 days, without need for interaction from the patient, with data recorded and wirelessly transmitted to the clinician’s computer.

“It’s just a simple wristband that you can just forget about once it’s on. You don’t have to recharge; there are no buttons to press; it’s just sitting on your wrist, monitoring your heart activity.”

The project recently received a grant of €500,000 from Enterprise Ireland, which will support two years of additional development.

The Galenband, named after the Greek physician Claudius Galen, who is believed to have first described the pulse, is in early development, with clinical studies estimated to start in about 18 months.

Mr McGrath, who has had three heart operations and says his condition is now manageable, says that while searching for a diagnosis, doctors told him his symptoms were “normal — you’ll grow out of it”.

But he knew “it didn’t make sense if everybody was experiencing that and nobody else was talking about it”.

Eventually, he underwent an invasive cardiac pacing procedure where three catheters are threaded up each leg to the heart, and electricity is applied to trigger the abnormality. 

He says the procedure is “a sure-fire way to get a diagnosis. But a bit extreme. So if there’s a simpler way, then you will want to take that.”

He says there’s no similar medical device on the market. 

The nearest alternative is patch monitors that stick to the skin with adhesive, but these are time-limited by restrictions imposed by the US Food and Drink Administration.

Mr McGrath was still at school when he started working on a monitor.

“I began developing Galenband out of my own need, and I wasn’t aware that millions of other people were in the same boat.” 

He was studying biomedical engineering at NUI Galway when he became aware that atrial fibrillation was a common problem. 

The business case arose when he realised, “maybe I can turn this into something that is self-sustaining and will allow me to help other people.”

In the US, planned as Galenband’s beachhead market, up to 6m people have atrial fibrillation, with an estimated one third undiagnosed, according to American non-profit Arrhythmia Alliance.

His work on the thesis project, where he collaborated with fellow students David Kerr, Belén Enguix, and Syed Kumail Jaffrey, won the Zenith award from Aerogen in 2018.

Galenband was the first ever Irish project chosen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of its IDEA² Global programme. 

It also won the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science award for research in the field of medical engineering. 

The project also won the technology category of the National Disability Authority’s 2019 Universal Design Grand Challenge Student Awards. 

Mr McGrath has since formed a new team, software developer Patrick Conway coming on board for the grant period.

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