Tech from wine industry adapted to save lives

University researchers are developing a device they hope will prevent deaths from surgical complications.

Head and shoulders of Professor John Windsor.
The device could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, Professor John Windsor says.

Technology from the wine industry is being adapted for use in a medical device that has potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives per year.

​Postoperative complications are the chief cause of death around surgery and, of these, 1.5 million deaths per year could be prevented if they were picked up and treated earlier.

Professor John Windsor at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland hopes a device his team are developing will provide an affordable solution.

“The technology itself has its roots in the electrochemistry we learnt at school – putting electrodes into solutions and measuring currents. It’s used in the wine industry to determine whether the wine has gone off and in animal husbandry to look at viability of sperm in donor animals,” says Professor Windsor, director of the University’s Surgical and Translational Research Centre (STaR).

“What we have done is take that technology and apply it to surgical patients. We have found in pilot clinical studies that we can accurately measure oxidative stress, which is a common feature of many diseases,” Professor Windsor says.

“What we've developed is a device which allows us to measure oxidative stress in two minutes at the bedside. This means we can measure it multiple times and determine the trend in the patient's oxidative stress over time.

“We are excited because it’s quick, cheap and easy to use.”

“At the moment, if you have just had an operation, we will measure your blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and oxygenation. All of those things are important, but they do not tell you what's happening at the cellular level.

“As most people know, the mitochondria are the parts of cells which make energy (stored in the molecule adenosine triphosphate or ATP). Without energy, you can't do anything, can't recover, can't heal, can't fight infection.

“So, mitochondrial dysfunction is a feature of disease and post-operative complications. This technology gives us a measure of what's happening at the mitochondrial level to give us new insight into a patient’s recovery.”

The funding will give the researchers an opportunity to refine the technology for use in clinical settings, and then it will be tested in hospitals around the world, especially in resource-constrained hospitals. 

Professor Windsor and his colleagues hope the device will become as common as a blood-pressure cuff or a pulse oximeter.

“Taking something from the wine industry and retooling it for medical use is a great example of translational research.”

The project has just received a share of $50 million funding from Wellcome Leap, which is going to 13 groups working to improve the safety of surgery.

“It is very prestigious to get this funding, which goes towards disruptive innovations to solve global problems,” says Professor Windsor.

More than five billion people do not have access to safe surgery, according to the World Health Organisation.

Wellcome Leap’s funding has the goal of reducing postoperative complications and mortality by 50 percent through quicker and more effective detection and treatment.

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