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Canadian innovators win global competition to tackle maternal health

Guy Dumont, right, and Dr. Mark Ansermino are part of a University of British Columbia team whose invention transforms a simple cellphone common even in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa into a portable blood-oxygen tester. Their innovative invention received grant money for their proposal aimed at cutting the horrific death rates of developing-world mothers and babies at birth.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

A team of Canadian medical researchers who have figured out a way to use cellphones to measure the oxygen content in blood will soon be saving lives in Africa.

The brilliance of the research, led by Mark Ansermino and Peter von Dadelszen, was recognized in Washington on Thursday when they were among 19 winners of a competition that began with a field of 600 applicants.

Each of the winners in the global challenge, which is meant to stimulate the type of innovative thinking that can help change the world, received seed grants of $250,000 to continue their work. In two years, after their ideas have been rigorously field tested, they will have a shot at winning an additional $2-million in funding grants.

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"Wow. This was pretty exciting," Dr. Ansermino said in Washington, shortly after attending an awards ceremony where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted the finalists.

"Few challenges are as persistent or heartbreaking as the health of mothers and children," said Ms. Clinton in her opening remarks. "For too many people in too many places, what should be a moment of great joy ends in tragedy," she said. "A woman in sub-Saharan Africa today remains 136 times more likely to die in childbirth than one in a developed country."

Dr. Ansermino said it was inspiring to be among the 77 finalists, and "amazing" to have been selected as one of the winners, along with another Canadian entry, led by Daniel Roth, a pediatrician at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Winning the seed grant "enables us to get started, to develop the product and work with industry do the initial product testing in Bangladesh," said Dr. Roth, whose project involves using "pre-natal sprinkles" to get critically needed, but unusually terrible-tasting, calcium into the diets of pregnant women.

The technology developed by Dr. Ansermino and Dr. von Dadelszen, who are both clinician scientists at the Child & Family Research Institute and associate professors at the University of British Columbia, is called the Phone Oximeter. It marries pulse oximetry, a method which shoots light waves through a patient's finger to determine blood oxygen levels, with software that can be downloaded into a cell phone. The device will detect early signs of hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen levels. The invention means a diagnostic tool, that once could only be found in hospitals, can now be put in the hands of non-specialist health care workers in communities.

"We've been talking about trying to get this project off the ground for four or five years and it's just a remarkable day," said Dr. von Dadelszen, who remained in Vancouver while Dr. Ansermino took a week of his vacation time to go to Washington for the awards.

Dr. von Dadelszen said the next step is to get the device "in the hands of people in the community and just sort of beat it to death ... and work out the algorithms that need to go in to it.".

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Dr. Dadelszen said globally 76,000 women die every year from preeclampsia, a condition that starts during pregnancy and is related to high blood pressure.

"And 99 per cent of those women die in lower-middle income countries. Most of them are dying in the community or they arrive in the hospital too late to be saved," he said. "So you have the ability now to with this platform to assess women with preeclampsia in their home or in a clinic.

Dr. von Dadelszen said that means "you've got the possibility of intervening on a grand scale and saving many women's lives."

Dr. Ansermino said though the focus is currently on preeclampsia, the Phone Oximeter will have other applications.

"This can be useful not only in these women with high blood pressure, but in many other situations such as babies who develop infections, and new born babies born with cardiac abnormalities that are not detected immediately."

Dr. Jacqueline Hudson, a resident at UBC, worked with a prototype Phone Oximeter at a hospital in Uganda last year and said health workers found it easy to use, clipping a sensor to a patient's finger and plugging in to a cellphone.

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"Two wave lengths of light go through the finger . . and you can get so much information from that, it's amazing," she said.

Told it sounded like the fictional Tricorder device used in Star Trek, Dr. Hudson replied: "It's not that far off."

The grant that was awarded in Washington is jointly funded by Grand Challengers Canada, the United States Agency for International Development, Norway's Foreign Ministry, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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