Their answer has spawned an innovative medical device, a BC-based biotech company, international clinical trials, and the potential to someday soon save thousands of lives around the world.
But their journey has by no means been a straight line.
Determined to make anaesthesia safe for everyone, the pair devised and built a prototype oximeter to measure a patient’s blood oxygen saturation using an ordinary mobile phone – an innovation with great promise to make a life-saving technology affordable and accessible in all settings.
With a home-built prototype in hand, the researchers carried out early tests in Uganda that showed the device’s potential.
While Ansermino saw the phone oximeter's capability in the field for anaesthesia, he realized the device had many other potential applications. A chance conversation over coffee with his colleague Peter von Dadelszen led to an “accident of research."
Describing his work on a risk-assessment model for pre-eclampsia, a serious elevation of blood pressure during pregnancy, von Dadelszen noted that the women who experienced the greatest complications suffered from low oxygen saturations — precisely the outcome the phone oximeter was created to measure.
people worldwide do not have access to safe, affordable surgical care.
Recognizing the synergy in their projects, the two researchers integrated phone oximetry into a predictive model of pre-eclampsia risk. The partnership has grown into a large international trial in four countries — India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Mozambique — with more than 80,000 women enrolled.
Expanding the phone oximeter's scope stands to benefit many more patients, but also increases the costs of bringing the device to market.
"We can solder this together in our basement and prove a concept, but there’s a huge step in actually making that into a commercial product," Ansermino says. "What we really needed was to establish a company to manufacture these devices."
Enter Tom Walker, an experienced BC-based biotech entrepreneur, who saw the news coverage of the device and was excited by the possibilities. Working with Ansermino’s team, Walker spearheaded development of a start-up company, LGT Medical, focused on producing the device.
But he didn't come with money, we still had to go to Grand Challenges Canada to try and raise some of the funds.
The team also attracted funds from local investors, enabling them to move forward with development of a commercial version of the phone oximeter.
"We're still not there yet," says Ansermino. "It's like with all start-ups, we don't have enough revenue to sustain us, so we're still looking for ways to keep this going for a few years so we can build sales and get to the stage where we are sustainable as a company."