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A computerised glove designed by University of Ulster scientists is set to improve the assessment of rheumatoid arthritis for many people, a conference of international healthcare innovators in Derry~Londonderry has heard.

Computer scientist and academic Dr Kevin Curran, who is a member of the design team, told the 4th annual Translational Medicine Conference (TMED 4) that a collaboration with rheumatology consultant, Dr Philip Gardiner, of the Western Health and Social Care Trust, is on the point of producing a unique wireless glove that should make the assessment of small joint mobility much more accurate. 

Dr Curran, who is based at the internationally renowned Intelligent Systems Research Centre (IRSC) at the Magee campus, said: “This is a custom-made ‘data glove’ which is being manufactured for us at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork and we are expecting delivery of it in August.

“For some months now we’ve been doing a lot of work on the concept, using a bought-in ‘off-the shelf’ glove. But our new one will break new ground for us because it is being made to our specifications and software design.”

Other members of the project team include Senior Lecturer Dr Joan Condell and James Connolly, a PhD researcher who has designed an innovative monitor interface which is pivotal to accuracy in measurement, recording and tracking of finger joint stiffness.

Dr Gardiner said: “There has never been a tool that adequately quantifies stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Current methods are fairly rudimentary and have been around for a very long time. The new glove will give more precise measurements than we’ve ever had and will help people to self-manage their condition.”

The two-day conference, which ends today, has been organised by C-TRIC, the Waterside-based clinical evaluation centre and healthcare innovation hub, which is based on the Altnagelvin Hospital campus, one of Northern Ireland’s largest acute hospital sites.

The annual event is a leading international focal point for the exploration of translational medicine, which is a rapidly growing global market sector centred on speedy and cost-effective translation of novel healthcare ideas from concept through to point of care.

The University of Ulster is one of C-TRIC’s principal stakeholders. C-TRIC is the only facility of its type in Ireland or the UK, linking clinicians, academics and business people under one roof in the drive to advance translational medicine initiatives.

Around 150 technologists, academics, healthcare practitioners, researchers and bioindustry R&D managers have attended the conference, hearing keynote addresses and exchanging ideas with successful trailblazers in translational medicine and healthcare experts from the United States.

They include Trung Do, Executive Director of Business Development at Partners HealthCare, a global leader in quality patient care, medical education and biomedical research. It had operating revenue of $7.6 billion in the year 2009-2010 and an academic research revenue of $1.3 billion.

Also taking part was Dr Susan Whoriskey, from Boston. She is Senior Vice President at Moderna Therapeutics, a former Entrepreneur in Residence (Life Sciences) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Principal, Founder at Whoriskey Associates.

Another US participant was Rick Lee, CEO of Healthrageous, a behavioural change company launched by Partners HealthCare and the Center for Connected Health based in Boston.

The conference theme was “Inflammatory Processes and Cardiovascular Disease – Innovative Healthcare for Challenging Times”.

University of Ulster staff showcased a range of projects that started in its Coleraine, Jordanstown and Magee campuses and are now making the leap from research laboratory to practical application – or “bench to bedside”, in the language of the pioneers of translational medicine.

They include advances in disease-management, diagnostics, therapeutics, personalised medicine and personalised nutrition.

Dr Curran, who also teaches at the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems at Magee, said the signs are promising for the new computerised glove.

“We have applied for a patent for our invention and already we’ve had interest from a number of companies,” he said.

Dr Condell added: “With very delicate sensors going all the way down to the finger tips and the wearer able to touch the monitor, we will have a three-dimensional picture and very accurate measurements of flexibility.

"It will enable us to do much more than we can at present by accurately assessing flexibility in finger joints.”

At the conference, Dr Clare Wilson of the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (the nutrition arm of Ulster’s top-performing Biomedical Sciences Research Institute (BMSRI)) spoke of her recent research that found increased intake of vitamin B2, which is in dairy products, can significantly lower blood pressure among some people who have a particular genetic factor.

BMSRI Director Professor Tony Bjourson, Dr Cathy McGeough, a Research Associate in Stratified Medicine at Ulster and Dr Martin Crockard of Randox Laboratories briefed participants about an initiative that will help many people who have rheumatoid arthritis and save the health service millions of pounds each year.

The BMSRI-Randox collaboration has developed a simple, personalised test which will enable life-changing drug treatment to be tailored to the needs of people who have the chronic inflammatory disease.

Among the many others who took part in the conference were Michael Caulfield, CEO of Intelesens, the Belfast-based healthcare technology spin-out company from the University of Ulster.

It is a leading innovator in non-invasive vital signs monitoring equipment, much of it highly miniaturised, lightweight, unobtrusive and easily worn under clothing, used in remote patient monitoring and personal telehealth.