RIT Rallies: Research project moves from prototype to support for coronavirus care

RIT team provides non-invasive heart monitor to devices available to assess CV-19 symptoms

Designer-developers of the HealthKam personal wellness tracker are, from left, Celal Savur, Ruslan Dautov and Kamil Bukum

A heart monitoring solution developed in a Rochester Institute of Technology engineering lab is helping to provide individuals with early signs of COVID-19 symptoms during the 2020 crisis.

VPG Medical, a local start-up company with ties to RIT and the University of Rochester Medical Center, developed the heart monitoring solution, a home-based wellness tracker called the HealthKam. The company recently offered it for free to Monroe Country residents during the COVID-19 outbreak. The app runs on Android devices and uses the embedded front camera to track the device user’s heart rate while they use the device as they normally would, thereby providing continuous monitoring without requiring the user to take-action or buy a device in order to be monitored. While many factors can impact heart rate, it also goes up as fever, one of several symptoms of the coronavirus, increases.

The app, while not meant to be a diagnostic tool, can provide the user with valuable information on heart rate, and it was one of the main ideas behind the research as it was being performed at RIT. Gill Tsouri, a professor of electrical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering had been working on the technology since 2012, most recently with his doctoral students—Celal Savur, Ruslan Dautov and Kamil Bukum—and its path to the pandemic would be an example of how ideas and collaborations can become commercial products that can help the public.

The research team knew their prototype could be a positive addition to health care providing a non-invasive way to gather important medical information to help deter cardiac conditions such as arrhythmia and heart failure. They saw it as a strategy for patients to confidently use the technology to self-monitor their own health. Their team of RIT engineers and physicians from URMC originally received a grant in 2017 from the National Institutes of Health to develop a non-contact, video recording technology to detect the presence of atrial fibrillation—a heart rhythm disorder that affects more than 2 million Americans yearly. Tsouri would be co-project leader with Jean Philippe Couderc, a biomedical engineer and assistant director of UR’s Heart Research Follow-up Program Lab, who led the clinical trials, and Burr Hall, leader of URMC’s Atrial Fibrillation Clinic. The latter led clinical trials.

“The core technology that captures the signal and analyzes it, is one we developed at RIT. We all had a love of technology, but understood some of the difficulties in combining different technologies for this application. We had to understand things like video streaming and processing in real time. And can we extract this valuable information? We were able to use some advanced processing techniques to do this,” said Savur, who is from Turkey. He expects to graduate this May. All three of the students are experts in different elements of non-invasive monitoring from understanding how to develop real-time Android applications to understanding the implementation of sensor technologies with video imaging systems.

The team would continually enhance the system and test it through connections at URMC, led by Couderc. The company was formed in 2018 and the technology commercialized. The start-up won second place and $500,000 in the annual Luminate NY Accelerator and “Finger Lakes Forward” competition that year to advance the businesses as well as boost the state economy.

Non-invasive, remote monitoring technologies complement traditional health care because early preventive measures can help decrease the need for emergency care. While beneficial, the industry remains fairly new and wellness trackers that have direct connections to physicians are on an upward trend.

“People still trying to master this kind of technology,” Celal explained. “Everything in our system is automated and tracked passively while you are using your personal device, and that is why I think the information is different than other technologies.”

Ruslan agreed: “I’ve also been involved since the beginning, and did some of the original prototyping of the algorithms that would go into a mobile device like a tablet or phone. It was a very important project that can change the way health care works for the better.”

All three student-researchers were part of what Tsouri calls a continuum in research, extending basic research from feasibility studies in the lab to a software platform making it work for the benefits of users outside the lab to generate a broader impact.

“Celal, Kemal and Ruslan came to the project at the point where it was critical to take these established algorithms and make them useful for everyday life and their contributions was extremely important for making this happen,” said Tsouri. “Moving from the lab environment to people’s homes is a challenging task.”

The members of VPG Medical wanted to do whatever possible to help the local community in its time of need.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a health emergency and many of our older and immunocompromised neighbors will largely be staying home in the upcoming months. We wanted to provide an advanced and simple technology for helping them and the ones close to their heart to have insight into their health status, and particularly signs of possible fevers,” said Couderc, chief executive officer of VPG Medical.

Due to the speed with which VPG Medical wanted to release this free tool in response to the crisis, this release only works on specific Samsung smart devices and was originally available to a limited number of users at this time. The company is expanding availability across the country.

 “That we may help even one person – that’s remarkable,” said Savur.

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