Using technology to treat COPD

Paul explains how his team are designing a new product to help people living with COPD.

COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a lung condition that affects around 3 million people in the UK alone. There isn’t a cure and people can find it harder to breathe and keep active over time. There are treatments to help COPD, but right now they only do so much.

We believe we can do more. We are a team of four from various backgrounds in science and technology from Imperial College: Dr Jing Pang, John Xin Zhan, Jack McNeice, and myself, Paul de Panisse.

Our university recently invited us to take part in a hackathon. It’s an event where people get together to come up with ideas to solve a problem, usually over a weekend or a few days.

The Breathe Hackathon focused on COPD and new treatments. We all felt we could relate to the effects of COPD – being ex-smokers ourselves, or seeing family members affected by lung conditions.

So we formed our team and joined the event to see if we could make a difference.

Breathe Hackathon

The Breathe Hackathon took place across the world; at Imperial College London, MIT in the US, and Technion in Israel. Lots of organisations who support people with COPD got involved, including the British Lung Foundation, as well as world-famous researchers and experts in the condition.

It was incredible speaking to professors, doctors and industry experts to get their ideas and hear the challenges they had faced so far.

We also spoke to people living with COPD to find out how they were affected by the condition. So many of them rely on lots of different medications and treatments; inhalers, tablets, pulmonary rehab, oxygen…the list goes on.

We were surprised just how complex COPD treatment could be. As scientists and engineers, of course we couldn’t help but think there must be a more effective way.

New technology for COPD

We came up with a few different ideas during the hackathon, trying to be creative but also practical – would the idea be realistic to pull off?

After lots of debate and a few reworkings, we finally came up with KOALA. No, it hasn’t got anything to do with the cuddly bears! It’s the name of a small, affordable and lightweight pendant that can prevent COPD flare-ups, where symptoms get suddenly worse and can even be life-threatening.

Why is it called KOALA? Because we also want the pendant to comfortably hang around your neck while it cares for you, like a koala bear hug.

We learned that some people who have COPD isolate themselves. So it’s important that the design helps them to feel empowered.

If you’re living with COPD, KOALA has lots of sensors to track things that suggest you might be about to have a flare-up – if you start breathing quicker, your heart rate goes up, or you start coughing more often. It could then take that information and let you know that a flare-up might be happening, or even send a message to your carers, family members or your doctor.

If you know that a flare-up might be on the way, you can take action to get treatment before it gets serious. And in the long run that could slow down the progression of your COPD, so you have a better quality of life for longer.

The next steps

It was so valuable to have so many experts around us at the hackathon. We were able to get loads of information and feedback about our idea straight away.

We’re not finished yet though. Now the hackathon is over, we’re talking to our new contacts to keep making our idea even better. Simple things can make a real difference – like making it smaller and more comfortable to wear. And we also need to make sure it’s accurate at tracking people’s symptoms. Most importantly though, we need it to be as simple and useful as possible.

We haven’t set a date for when KOALA will be on sale just yet. We’re talking to companies who work with COPD treatments, and getting a board of people to help us develop it further.

Living well with COPD is possible, but challenging; our technology could be a real step forward for people affected by this condition.

If you’re living with COPD, find out more about preventing and managing flare-ups.


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9 February 2016