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Helping Hand for Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers

26 September 2013

DigitEase, a bespoke data glove with sensitive movement sensors which use advanced software developed by the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems at the University of Ulster’s Magee Campus has carried off the top prize in the inaugural TMED Health challenge.

The pioneering research project was also one of the finalists in the annual NISP Connect 25K awards (Northern Ireland Science Park).

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disabling and painful condition which limits movement in the finger, wrist, knee and elbow joints affecting an estimated 400,000 adults in the UK. Apart from the huge personal cost, rheumatoid arthritis has serious economic implications - 1 in 7 patients give up work within 12 months of diagnosis and 4 out of every 10 people with rheumatoid arthritis lose their jobs within 5 years, the majority for reasons directly related to their condition.

The DigitEase data glove will improve the accuracy of diagnosis and treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis giving precise and detailed readings. This will minimise the time needed for consultation and improve the level of care for patients with the potential to make huge savings for the health service.

The TMED Health Challenge 2013, organised by C-TRIC (Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre), HSC Innovations and CultureTECH, challenged the creative and digital industries to address unmet needs in health and wellbeing.

Barry Henderson, C-TRIC’s Commercial Manager, explained the thinking behind the TMED Health Challenge.

“It is designed to help foster greater collaboration between the creative industries and healthcare with a view to developing promising new products and service solutions for the health and wellbeing market.

“We invited submissions from teams across the UK and Ireland for design-led solutions to unmet healthcare needs to include mobile applications, infographics aimed at better communication of key healthcare messages, and software aimed at exploiting large and complex datasets for health care providers and ultimately patient benefit.”

Five shortlisted teams pitched their innovative healthcare solutions to an expert panel of healthcare industry representatives.

The DigitEase data glove was developed by Ulster academics Dr Kevin Curran and Dr Joan Condell and alongside researcher Mr James Connolly and Western Trust’s rheumatoid arthritis consultant Dr Philip Gardiner.

Dr Curran said: "If patients are to receive the care needed to manage their condition and doctors the time to assess their condition thoroughly, more accurate and less laborious methods to record joint movements are needed.

“Measurement of joint range is used to establish a baseline and to record progress but this requires exhaustive personal examination and can be very labour intensive. Current measurement techniques are either invasive like X rays or have an over reliance on manual evaluation, such as vision and touch, both of which are very dependent on training and experience and results can vary widely between observers."

Mr Connolly continued: "Data gloves have been used before to measure joint movements but they were not fitted with sufficient sensors on each finger and deformities and swollen joints caused the sensors to record inaccurate readings.

The DigitEase glove is a much more advanced version of anything currently available to clinicians and will be able to integrate real time movements of the hand to allow detailed observations and measurement of each patient’s hand and wrist movements. It will also include pressure rotation sensors on the thumb, single pressure sensors on each fingertip and bend sensors on the finger joints

Dr Condell explained that patients will be able to wear the glove at home and this would allow joint stiffness to be dynamically monitored so the rate of movement of joints at different times of the day can be measured offline from the clinic.

“This will help clinicians quantify and better understand ‘early morning stiffness’ which is almost universal in patients with inflammatory arthritis. The system will also be able provide a live 3D stimulation model of joint movement programmed with finger exercises to help with rehabilitation allowing clinicians to assess the quantifiable benefits of the exercise programme."

She added that although the data glove is being developed with rheumatoid arthritis sufferers in mind, there are many other possible applications of a wearable sensor glove, for example rehabilitation of hand injuries, where accurate clinical measurements are essential.

“The project could have significant commercial benefits in the electronic manufacturing sector as the ‘wearable technologies’ sector continues to grow.

"The target market for the data glove is the medical devices industry and the global market for medical devices and consumables is estimated to be worth £150 billion, with the US accounting for 40% of the total global spend."

The runner up spot in the TMED Challenge was filled by another Ulster academic, Professor Maurice Mulvenna from School of Computing and Mathematics, who developed ‘SmartLife’, a lifestyle management app for diabetes.

Other companies pitching in the TMED Challenge included ‘Green Life’, ‘Medical Practitioner App’ and ‘In Your Element’.

The TMED Health Challenge was sponsored by Invest Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster’s Office of Innovation. The other finalists were e included ‘Green Life’, ‘Medical Practitioner App’ and ‘In Your Element’.

The winning projects received a cash prize, incubation support funding advice, research and innovation support and a bursary to support further project development.