In the fight against COVID-19, we have seen a whole range of exciting and novel developments. Now, researchers at Northwestern University said that they had developed a "sticker-like" medical device that includes a suite of clinical-grade sensors to stream medical data to physicians in real-time.
The device, which sits at the base of patients' throats, is far more sophisticated than consumer-grade wearables such as fitness trackers that offer fundamental health monitoring.
The Northwestern team, which was led by John Rogers, a pioneer in bioelectronics, published its findings in the journal Science Advances on July 1. The team has tested the novel device on more than 50 physicians, rehabilitation specialists, and patients at the country's Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and the Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Monitoring Respiratory Health
According to the team's editorial, the sticker-like medical device, which is as small as a postage stamp, is flexible, soft, and sits at the throat's base just below the suprasternal notch. The team says that this part of the throat is the best location for monitoring respiratory health using the wireless device, which streams symptom data to physicians.
"The device measures very tiny vibrations on the skin and has an embedded temperature sensor for fever," Rogers said. "As you cough and breathe, it counts coughs, monitors the intensity of cough, and senses laboured breathing. The throat's location is also close enough to the carotid artery that it can measure mechanical signatures of blood flow, monitoring heart rate," he added.
According to Shuai Xu, a Northwestern University dermatologist, the sensor targets key COVID-19 symptoms to identify the virus in patients much earlier. "It's a suite of clinical-grade sensors wrapped into one small device. And once it's placed on the throat, people don't even realize that it's there," Xu said.
The pair of sensors sit on the base of the throat and wrap around a finger to monitor respiratory health and pulse oximetry. Image Credit: Northwestern University.
Clinical-Grade Monitoring Systems
In their research paper, the team differentiates between consumer electronics and clinical-grade monitoring systems. As we are all now fully aware, the early symptoms of a case of COVID-19 are fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. And to accurately and reliably track these symptoms, you need a device that sits in the right anatomical location; a fitness tracker wrapped around a wrist or finger, therefore, falls short of the mark.
More recently, the Northwestern team added a flexible, wearable pulse oximeter to pair with the suprasternal-mounted device. This enables physicians to continuously monitor silent hypoxia, a common asymptomatic feature marked by very low blood oxygen levels. Adding this feature will help the device paint a broader picture of COVID's onset, progression, and response to treatment.
Testing for COVID-19 with the Sticker-Like Medical Device
Since launching the device in April, the team has tested it on 52 COVID-19-positive physicians, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, and patients at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and Northwestern Memorial Hospital in both home and clinical settings. The research team has collected 3,000 hours' worth of data from these tests, which will continue to strengthen the device's algorithms.
The team hopes to test 500 people by the end of the year and hopes that eventually, the machine-learning algorithms will become advanced enough to distinguish between COVID-like coughs and coughs caused by allergies, colds, or dry throats.
"We are already seeing clear vital sign differences collected by the sensor between patients with COVID-19 and healthy-matched controls," said Arun Jayaraman, a researcher assistant scientist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, who leads the algorithm development. "We're working together to develop predictive algorithms for detecting the disease earlier."