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Canadian innovators win global competition to tackle maternal health

July 29, 2011
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An innovative proposal from Dr. Mark Ansermino and Dr. Peter von Dadelszen to transform a simple cell phone into a portable blood-oxygen tester secured a $250,000 seed grant from "Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development," an international competition to improve maternal health.

An inexpensive and intuitive way to identify pregnant mothers at risk for preeclampsia, the Phone Oximeter uses a sensor attached to the patient’s fingertip to measure the proportion of blood with oxygen compared to blood without oxygen. The cell phone software analyzes the data and displays blood oxygen levels, respiratory and heart rates. This tool is especially useful in small or rural communities with little access to health care.

Preeclampsia, the sudden onset of high blood pressure during pregnancy, is the second-leading cause of maternal death worldwide and is estimated to cause 76,000 deaths a year.

"According to estimates from WHO, six out of ten people in the world have cell phone contracts," says Dr. Ansermino. "We’re leveraging the cell phone technology that’s already available and using it for health care at low cost."

With the Phone Oximeter, Dr. von Dadelszen told the Globe and Mail, "you have the possibility of intervening on a grand scale and saving many women’s lives."

"Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development" is jointly funded by Grand Challenges Canada, the United States Agency for International Development, Norway’s Foreign Ministry, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There were 600 applicants for this competition and only 19 projects received funding. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the awards ceremony in Washington and congratulated the winners.

Dr. Peter von Dadelszen is a Senior Clinician Scientist and Co-Director of the Reproduction & Healthy Pregnancy Cluster at CFRI; a Consultant in Maternal Fetal Medicine at BC Women's Hospital & Health Centre and Professor, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, UBC. Dr. Mark Ansermino is an Associate Clinician Scientist, CFRI; Director of Research for Pediatric Anesthesia, BC Children's Hospital; and Assistant Professor, Department of Anesthesia, UBC.

[Globe and Mail story]