Low cost sensor diagnoses early heart problems

Tom Shelley reports on a simple gadget that should reassure many and may save the lives of more than a few

Tom Shelley reports on a simple gadget that should reassure many and may save the lives of more than a few A small gadget that plugs into the back of a PC clearly picks and displays a signal relating to the cardiovascular activity of the human heart. Its development was started by somebody who eventually died of a heart attack, and the development was completed by his best friend as something of a personal crusade, despite many setbacks and discouragements. It has been endorsed by at least one fairly distinguished doctor, and had notice been taken of its results during one of its demonstrations, one of the UK's leading promoters of new technologies might still be with us. The BioLecTracer is a small device containing two wells filled with electrolyte, which may be plugged into a PC's USB port. If the user puts the forefingers of their two hands into the two wells, the PC produces a pattern that appears to closely relate to the electrical signals produced by the user's heart. It takes only a few moments to undertake a test and produce a trace, and only another few moments to perform other tests, such as the user holding their breath, and so applying stress. It began when somebody came to Midlands based PIE Electronics - Colin Smith and Merlyn Farwell - six and a half years ago and commissioned, "Something entirely different," in the words of Mr Farwell, when we met him at the betfair.com British Inventions Show. He told us that he considered it his mission to complete the design and development, after Colin Smith, who instigated the project when he noticed he could see his heartbeats on an oscilloscope, died of a heart attack. Mr Farwell makes no pretence that his little device and software, which will go on sale in January 2006 for £99, is a replacement for a full blown electrocardiograph (ECG), which records signals from electrodes typically placed on ten or twelve different parts of the human body. What it can show, however, is whether the user's heart is producing a normal or suspect pattern of activity that might warrant further investigation. It also generates a substantial amount of data in digital form that could potentially be correlated with patient health records and used as a basis of automated diagnoses. Mr Farwell has been bringing successive versions of his instrument and software to Inventions Shows these last several years. It has been endorsed by Dr Marc Spinoza, a staff practitioner at Great Ormond Street, who has written, "Your machine is portable, simple to use and clearly displays an electrical signal relating to the cardiovascular activity....I think that the simplicity of the device carries enormous appeal....I look forward to seeing the BLT as a clinical system." One of the visitors to try the device at the Inventions Show in November 2004 was the late David Nicholas, who presented an unusual BLT trace and sadly died just before Christmas. The government is of the opinion that ECG equipment should be available in all UK doctor's offices. There is an increasing sale of low cost, usually Japanese made and designed devices to monitor blood pressure and heart activity in a home environment, aimed at satisfying the market of people wishing to monitor their health with low cost electronic devices, particularly those who know they have a medical problem. Pioneering Inventions and Electronics Merlyn Farwell Pointers * Device allows the monitoring of cardiovascular activity from electrical signals detected at the forefinger tips, when these are inserted into two small wells of electrolyte into a simple device attached to a PC * It is simple, low cost, and tests can be undertaken in a few moments. It produces data in digital form that could be used as a basis of automated diagnosis and correlated with test results obtained from other patients, whether healthy or known to have problems