Getting to the heart of health-monitoring technology
Research Insights: Prof Jim McLaughlin, director of the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre and head of the school of engineering at Ulster University
Prof Jim McLaughlin
Jim you have recently been named a ‘Lifesaver’, what’s that about?
“It’s part of the Universities UK’s MadeAtUni campaign, which shows the impact of university research. They named 100 of the ‘Nation’s Lifesavers’ in the UK, people who are having an impact on health and wellbeing.”
What kind of health technology have you developed?
“A lot of our research has focused on bringing health technology to where people need it. Going back a while, we helped to develop the portable defibrillator, which has saved thousands of lives. More recently, we have been moving into the home, developing wearable technology that can monitor people with irregular heart rhythms who are at increased risk of stroke, and people with heart failure.”
Why the focus on heart failure?
“Heart failure is a big epidemic coming down the line. People are living longer thanks in part to medicine and devices – but when you get into your older years then the heart fails and you need diuretics to take the pressure off your heart and lungs, but the dosage needs to be managed to protect the kidney system. You are also at a higher risk of stroke, so that requires medication too.”
What are you working on there?
“We are just beginning to trial new technology that monitors people with heart failure. It’s a patch that the person can wear, and it measures trending parameters in heart rate and respiration or breathing. The system also measures an important biomarker or signal in the blood that is linked with heart failure.”
How are you innovating with that?
“Normally these kinds of biomarker measurements need a big enough drop of blood, around 30 microlitres. But our microfluidic system is designed to measure it in a much smaller volume of blood so it is easy for the person to get that pin-prick of blood for testing every so often. The information combines with the parameters from the heart and breathing and it goes to the cloud, where it can help a cardiac nurse to manage the person’s medication in a timely manner. The hope is that the system would allow people to live well at home and reduce hospital admissions.”
You have had a lot of success in innovation – for example co-founding Intelesens Ltd, which has been acquired by UltraLinq Healthcare – but what kinds of barriers are there to commercialising research?
“University structures are helpful in many ways for funding research and commercialising innovations, but the pathways aren’t always the most efficient. In UU we are experimenting with ‘hatcheries’ where businesses or other experts come in and work with researchers at an early stage to help with the validation process. The hope is that by the time the innovation goes into the university channels for commercialisation it might be at quite an accelerated rate.”
What do you wish innovators thought more about when they are developing health technology?
“That the user experience is really core to health technology. It’s something we are thinking about in a lot more detail now. For instance, think about what happens when the user is taking a pin-prick of their own blood or putting on a wearable electrode. We can’t expect them to have three hands! If you are developing technology for a person to use, then you really have to design it so they can use it.”