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Smart Watch in Development for Respiratory Diseases

Embrace2 smart watch

Embrace2 smart watch (Andres Babic, Empatica Inc.)

19 Feb. 2019. A watch-like device is being designed to monitor for early onset of respiratory diseases like the flu, well before noticeable symptoms develop. The wearable device is under development by Empatica Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with funding from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The new Empatica device is modeled on the company’s Embrace smart watch, now in its second version, to monitor for early signs of convulsive seizures from epilepsy. The Embrace watch is based on research by Rosalind Picard, director of MIT’s Affective Computing group that studies human psychology and computational technology, and a founder of the company. Picard’s research reveals connections between the experience of excitement, known as sympathetic activation, and subtle changes in electrical activity on the skin. A similar pattern of sympathetic activation occurs during seizures in people with epilepsy.

The Embrace watch measures this electro-dermal activity, and detects spikes in activity indicating a seizure. The core of the device is a machine-learning algorithm on a smartphone app that according to the company is trained with data from epilepsy monitoring units in hospitals, and continues to be refined with data from newer device users. These specialized hospital units capture more complex data to recognize the onset of a seizure as early as possible. The app can alert a caregiver if needed. As reported by Science & Enterprise, the Food and Drug Administration in February 2018 cleared the Embrace watch to detect early signs of convulsive seizures.

With funding from BARDA, Empatica plans to apply a similar approach to detecting early signs of respiratory diseases, such as influenza, before symptoms become apparent to the individual. Like the Embrace watch, the new device will monitor for characteristic physiological signals measurable on or near the skin, use machine learning algorithms to interpret those signals, and send an alert through an app that the wearer is developing the flu, or other respiratory disease. BARDA expects to test the respiratory-disease monitoring device in clinical studies of early in-home detection of infectious disease pathogens.

So far in this year’s flu season, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 15.4 and 17.8 million people in the U.S. have caught the flu, leading to as many as 221,000 hospitalizations and 19,100 deaths. In the 2017-18 season, flu led to some 80,000 deaths. Worldwide, according to a 2010 report, acute respiratory diseases — such as pneumonia, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus — are responsible for 4.25 million deaths, making it the third largest cause of death after heart disease and stroke.

BARDA is funding 55 percent of the $457,000 project to develop the new smart watch through the agency’s Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures, or Drive that supports innovations in health security. In December 2018, Drive announced a partnership with Biobeat Technologies, an Israeli company also developing a smart watch device to monitor for early symptoms of influenza and other respiratory diseases. The Biobeat technology measures subtle changes in blood volume in the skin surface.

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