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Innovation challenge to help develop wireless health tools for soldiers

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The U.S Army, along with Qualcomm and the University of California, San Diego, has sponsored a regional initiative that will provide funding and business mentoring to researchers from selected Southern California institutes that are developing novel technologies in wireless health care.

The Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) is interested in technologies that will help troops in need of monitoring, both deployed and at home.

If successful, the initiative will serve as a template for similar technology solicitations that the Army may co-sponsor in other parts of the country.

Through the Wireless Health Innovation Challenge, the Army hopes to find technologies that will enable remote clinical consultations, physiological sensors and patient education tools. It is also looking for tools to help post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients with anger management and devices that will aid rehabilitation of motor skills, in addition to remote management of disaster relief efforts.

The solicitation was issued in October and 12 proposals were selected, from UCSD, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles and CalTech, among other institutes.

Funding up to $75,000 per project and business mentoring will be given to the top three or four projects that get the green light in January. The funding can be used to develop and test prototypes, conduct proof-of-concept studies and market research.

The year-long program is intended to nurture and accelerate commercialization of technologies that have the most potential to improve health care delivery to military personnel and their families.

The program has other partners, including the UCSD Institute of Engineering in Medicine, the UCSD Clinical and Translational Research Institute and the Wireless-Life Science Alliance.

Why San Diego

The grant is being coordinated by UCSD’s William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement, a commercialization facility that expedites early-stage technologies. It has advised on more than 70 projects and funded nearly $4 million in seed money.

“We have experience in this convergence of technologies that are coming to bear, in solving the problems facing the life sciences industry,” said Hal Delong, a business adviser who consults on projects for the von Liebig Center, on why UCSD was chosen to coordinate the wireless health technology grant.

Most of the projects that the von Liebig center consults on are research and development projects. Advisers such as Delong, who has a background in medical device commercialization and previously worked for Johnson & Johnson, are typically involved in a couple dozen different projects that relate to their field of expertise.

“We’ve got quite a nice ecosystem for wireless health in San Diego,” said Don Jones, vice president of business development at Qualcomm Health and Life Sciences, who is also a co-founder and chairman of the Wireless Life Science Alliance.

Jones said that with von Liebig’s infrastructure and its connection to the local biomedical engineering community, it will be easy to manage the challenge. “What you have here is an academia meets research meets entrepreneurship situation.”

In October San Diego hosted an international wireless health conference, headlined by wireless industry executives such as Irwin Jacobs, Qualcomm’s (Nasdaq: QCOM) founder, and others. The event was attended by more than 300 scientists, doctoral and post-doctoral fellows, entrepreneurs and investors. Jones said it is set to become an annual event.

The city has emerged as a hub for wireless health technology, given the presence of institutes such as West Wireless Health and UCSD, as well as pioneering companies in the field such as CardioNet (Nasdaq: BEAT), which moved headquarters two years ago to Pennsylvania, and DexCom (Nasdaq: DXCM). Jones estimates there are about 50 local companies in this field.

Technologies that will emerge from challenge

The program sponsors are looking for certain categories of technologies. Among the 12 proposals under consideration, said Delong, are implantable sensors with integrated wireless transmitters that will measure vital signs.

There are also applications for water quality monitoring and health monitoring in remote areas, which interests the Army since it is called on to help in humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. Water quality monitoring is essential to prevent public health disease breakouts, so sensors made for such applications will prove to be very useful, according to Jones.

“The proposals reflect state-of-the-art thinking in these technologies,” Delong said.

The proposals will be evaluated by representatives from all of the sponsors, and the center’s advisers will help the chosen researchers in assessing the direction of applications, Delong said.

Jones said “smart” wireless band-aids -- disposable biosensors that you can stick and peel off -- is one example of the kind of technologies that may emerge from this program.

“There are many, many possibilities. Some are already commercial, such as DexCom’s glucose monitoring system,” Jones said. “You’ll see combinations eventually -- not one, but multiple sensors that work in variable clinical analytics.”

He said such advancements will create large amounts of streaming wireless data and the experts will then find out what it can predict, based on all that data.

Jones also expects more accurate kinds of sensors that don’t make contact with the body and can do predictive modeling. The next generation of wireless sensors will not just collect data, but also cross-reference it, analyze it and diagnose symptoms.

“If you take your temperature and it’s going up, that’s bad. If it’s going down, that’s good. But what if your temperature is going down but your blood pressure is going up? So we’d need to get alerts fed into the system and a medical professional would then decide on dosage increases or whether to bring in the patient,” Jones explained.

The TATRC is also interested in sensors that interact between the body and mechanical prosthesis, Jones said.

“The military wants technologies that can help wounded soldiers who in previous wars would not have survived such injuries.”

Where PTSD is concerned, Jones pointed out that most of the solutions are not sensor based.

Companies such as NeuroVigil have developed non-invasive wireless neurological sensors that gauge the brain, so that pharmaceutical companies can use EEG recordings to analyze drug efficacy.

Jones said such technologies will help with diagnosis and analysis so that doctors don’t have to rely so much on guesswork, since a lot of neurological therapy is based on deductions.

“We are going to see any number of companies come up here, given the environment. San Diego has rapidly become the center of wireless health innovation,” Jones said.

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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