Business Technology

Monday 15 July 2019

'Terrifying' heart-condition experience as a child spurred researcher to create wrist-worn medical device to prevent strokes

The Galway-based researcher suffers from the heart condition he is aiming to treat

Dr Emery Brown, Associate Director of MIT for Medical Engineering and Science, presents Galenband project-lead Oisín McGrath with the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science Award for research in the field of medical engineering. Photo: Oisín McGrath
Dr Emery Brown, Associate Director of MIT for Medical Engineering and Science, presents Galenband project-lead Oisín McGrath with the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science Award for research in the field of medical engineering. Photo: Oisín McGrath

Áine Kenny

An NUI Galway-based biomedical engineer, Oisín McGrath, has been granted €500,000 from Enterprise Ireland to further develop his project Galenband.

The Galenband is a wrist-worn device which monitors the heart activity of people with intermittent atrial fibrillation, and ultimately aims to reduce their rate of stroke and heart failure.

Mr McGrath, the project's lead researcher, suffers from intermittent atrial fibrillation and hopes his new device will improve the way the condition is diagnosed.

Atrial fibrillation occurs when the electrical impulses that coordinate heartbeats don’t work properly, causing the heart to beat irregularly. Intermittent atrial fibrillation occurs when the irregular heartbeats occur very infrequently, and over long periods of time.

I used to get palpitations, where my heart would go from 60 beats per minute to 200 beats per minute almost instantanously. NUI Galway-based biomedical engineer, Oisín McGrath

The condition is difficult to detect because regular heart beat monitors don't usually record data over a period longer than two days.

"There's a real gap in treatment at the moment because current monitors work well, but they are geared towards persistent symptoms. Their battery life is short, or they are prescribed only for a short time," says Mr McGrath, the lead researcher for Galenband.

The Galenband is worn like a wrist watch, so it can record heart rhythm over a long time, and in discreet manner.

Mr McGrath, who is from Belmullet in Co Mayo, says he struggled for 13 years to get a diagnosis of intermittent atrial fibrillation. This was because his irregular heartbeats occurred more than a week apart, which short-term detectors couldn't pick up.

He told Independent.ie that growing up with an undiagnosed heart condition was very scary. "Since I was five years old I knew something was wrong. I used to get palpitations, where my heart would go from 60 beats per minute to 200 beats per minute almost instantanously.

"It was terrifying. This lasted 13 years, until I was 18. Me and my parents went all over the country trying to get a diagnosis."

Eleven different heart monitors failed to detect anything wrong with Mr McGrath's heartbeat. Eventually he had to go through a cardiac-pacing procedure, where three catheters were placed in the arteries in each of Mr McGrath's legs. Electric currents were used to stimulate his heart beat and detect irregularities.

"It's a bit like a keyhole surgery, so it happens in an operating theatre. The electric pulses trigger the irregularities," Mr McGrath said.

"It's a scary thing. I just though that there has to be an easier method than this."

He began working on the origins of this project after the surgery, when he was still in school. However, when he went to college he was able to take it to the next level.

As part of his biomedical engineering degree in NUI Galway, he had to complete an undergraduate thesis. In this research he focused on cardiac rhythm monitoring methods using a long-term device.

"The creation of this device started with establishing there was a problem. The NUI Galway degree emphasises needs-led innovation. This means we talk to industry, identify a problem, ask why it hasn't been solved and then come up with a solution."

"The Galenband is placed by a cardiac physician on the wrist. It's low profile and non-interactive. You don't have to monitor it, it's nice and simple.

"This condition usually affects older people more so that is why its been designed like this. You just leave it on," said Mr McGrath.

The product is in the early design stage, but this new grant from Enterprise Ireland will help with the process. Mr McGrath siad they will work on producing clinical data, which will hopefully prove the Galenband  is as accurate as the current short-term heart beat monitors.

Mr McGrath said that the name Galenband comes from the ancient Greek physician Galen, who is believed to be the first person to describe the pulse.

Mr McGrath has also completed a Masters in biomedical engineering in NUI Galway and he collaborated with fellow students David Kerr, Belén Enguix, and Syed Kumail Jaffrey. The work carried out during this time received the Zenith award from Aerogen Ltd.

The Galenband project was the first Irish project chosen by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of their IDEA² Global program, and Galenband also won the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science award for research in the field of medical engineering.

The project won the Technology category of the 2019 Universal Design Grand Challenge, organised by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design at the National Disability Authority, and supported by Enterprise Ireland.

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