Cardiac diagnoses get boost from UMass

Blood pressure sensor developed in Lowell could be lucrative for university

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2011

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The device is tiny, sitting at the tip of an optic fiber about 125 microns in diameter. Sliding through the artery of a cardiac patient, though, it can make a big difference.

It’s a sensor developed by assistant professor Xingwei Wang of the department of electrical and computer engineering at University of Massachusetts Lowell, designed to allow doctors to measure blood pressure in real time as it travels through a patient’s arteries. The information it sends back helps to assess the severity of blockages, which could mean better treatment decisions — and could make the technology a money-maker for the university.

“We’re very excited about this technology, and have been for some time,’’ said Jill Murthi, associate director of UMass Lowell’s Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property, which has started the patent application process. “It’s conducive for a variety of medical applications, but it may well have much broader applications outside medical devices.’’

The question is, how best to bring the device to market? “We are looking to both licensing the technology, or maybe having a start-up company,’’ said Wang. “We are working toward commercialization, and some companies or people have already contacted us for the possible licensing. . . . I don’t think it is very far away.’’

Wang is a specialist in small optical sensor devices. Her device works by responding to pressure as it travels through blood vessels. Laser light is transmitted down the fiber. As the device moves, pressure in the blood vessel changes depending on what’s ahead, included blockages. Differences in pressure cause a diaphragm at the tip of the fiber to change shape, altering the light that is reflected back to a detector at the other end of the fiber. That’s the signal that the sensor is encountering new conditions within the vessel.

Testing the blood pressure device in animal studies is Dr. Kurt Barringhaus, interventional cardiologist on staff at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester and an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Barringhaus performs roughly 300 angioplasties and stent procedures a year to improve blood flow in patients with blocked arteries. He said treatment decisions can be simple for patients with very severe or very minor narrowings, but “somewhere in between, we run into a dilemma.’’ With arteries that are 40 to 70 percent narrowed, he said, doctors often face a difficult decision about whether to go ahead with a procedure, which can carry serious risks.

Current technology for measuring pressure within blood vessels generally uses electrical sensors, and is “rather difficult to maneuver,’’ Barringhaus said. Wang’s device is smaller and has better “steerability,’’ so it can be used in narrower blood vessels and can better pinpoint blockages. It would help doctors avoid performing unnecessary procedures and optimize patient outcomes, he said.

The device could also be used by doctors in areas such as the lungs or brain, Wang said, and the technology could have applications in other fields. Among other benefits, the sensor is immune to electrical interference, which would be helpful in work in power plants, she said.

Currently the devices are made one at a time under a microscope by Wang’s team, but they would be relatively inexpensive to manufacture, she said.

In early April, the project was awarded a $25,000 grant from the university to cover additional testing. It’s the third such grant for the project.

Murthi said they hope the additional test results will be enough to allow them to seek seed funding or an industrial partner for more expensive clinical tests on humans.

Although licensing the technology to a company is an option, the university is “very eager to encourage’’ the formation of start-up companies if they can meet certain criteria for viability, according to Murthi. “The technology generally needs to be a disruptive technology, and/or in some way a platform technology that can be utilized for multiple applications,’’ she said.

Intellectual property rights are assigned to the university, and the first 15 percent of revenue goes to the UMass president’s office, said Murthi. After that, the formula may vary slightly between the various campuses, she said, but at Lowell, 30 percent goes to the inventor or inventors of the device, 15 percent goes to the department or center where the project arose, and the remaining 40 percent goes to research and development for other projects on campus.

In fiscal year 2011, Lowell had its most successful year ever, with $1.1 million in gross revenue to the university system from such projects, Murthi said.

Joel Brown can be reached at