A life-saving temperature sensor devised by Jacqueline Savage could give cancer patients a much better chance of surviving treatment.
Biomedical engineer and entrepreneur Jacqueline Savage is keen to discuss the engineering behind her award-winning invention — a wearable medical device that looks set to revolutionise the healthcare system by accurately measuring core body temperature from the surface of the skin and sending the information to a smartphone.
The challenge for Savage — and surely a frustration for those wishing to get under the hood of this potentially lifesaving device — is that the technology is a secret she can’t share.
There is a lot riding on Savage’s invention.
Not only may it significantly improve the wellbeing of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, its success may also smooth the pathway to market for a wearable intravenous drug delivery and patient monitoring device called MedPro, which Savage has also designed and patented.
“We’re an R&D company and so our work is highly confidential,” said an apologetic Savage, who founded biomedical engineering company MedCorp Technologies in 2013 while studying product design engineering at Swinburne University.
“We can’t risk anything impacting us commercially. It’s tricky for me, because sometimes I get a bit excited from an engineering point of view and want to tell all, but then I have to reign it back in.”
The path to biomedicine
It may be too risky to reveal the technology behind Savage’s invention, which was listed among the Top 100 Global Engineering Innovations by NASA’s magazine Tech Briefs in 2014.
However, the journey from engineering student to startup founder and medtech leader is a story she’s happy to share — especially if it can inspire other engineers to transform their ideas into action.
Engineering was not Savage’s first choice. She had devoted much of her childhood and early teen years to horse riding and had set her mind on an equestrian career.
A fractured vertebra – the result of a fall during a jump – put an end to that dream and she shifted her thinking to engineering.
While completing her second year of study at Swinburne, Savage watched a close friend battle blood cancer.
Savage would visit her in hospital every Friday while she underwent chemotherapy and an interest in biomedical engineering was sparked.
“We were in the mindset of second year of engineering where students start to look at products and systems in a very different way,” said Savage, who received the Telstra Victorian Business Woman’s Entrepreneur Award in 2016.
“You begin to notice inefficiencies and how you could make them better.”
Savage’s friend lost her battle to cancer and, within a month, a family friend died from an undetected infection he had developed while undergoing chemotherapy.
If his infection had been detected earlier, Savage believes he’d be alive today.
And one of the earliest signs of infection? A spike in body temperature.
Removing the blinkers
Although the core body temperature sensor is MedCorp’s flagship product, Savage’s first ambition was to create a product to provide intravenous drug delivery and health monitoring from the comfort of the patient’s home.
In 2014, Savage joined sailboat hardware manufacturer Ronstan and founded a baby product company called MioPlay, where she learned to design, manufacture and distribute products internationally.
Within a year, Savage quit her day job to focus on her medtech startup, which is based in the Factory of the Future at Swinburne’s Innovation Precinct.
She engaged with more than 100 healthcare professionals during the research for her device and raised seed funding via medtech competition prize money and product sales from MioPlay.
Savage said commercialising MedPro was a tough first project for a startup. Development time, costs and regulatory risks presented significant obstacles.
“There’s one thing to be an engineer and another thing to be a commercially viable business owner,” Savage said.
“I was developing an incredibly complicated class IIB medical device for intravenous, life support drug delivery, which is probably one of the more difficult things you can do in healthcare. It was not the easiest first venture for somebody starting out on their own, but it was A for effort.”
Savage shifted her focus to the commercialisation of MedCorp’s key technology – the core body temperature sensor.
“This is what really set us apart,” she said.
Roughly the size of a 50-cent coin, the patch is worn on the chest and uses a sensor and an algorithm to measure core body temperature.
“That’s about as much as I can tell you about the technology,” Savage said.
“We use a lot of machine learning algorithms; there’s a strong AI component to what we’re developing.”
The core body temperature sensor is currently undergoing trials before being launched onto the market.
Initial product testing was conducted in MedCorp’s lab at Swinburne. Savage heated a tub of water, which represented the heart, and placed the sensor on a layer of aluminium and silicone, which simulated human tissue layers.
She then took temperature readings from the sensor and compared them to the actual water temperature.
The Eureka moment came when the sensor measured and tracked changes in core body temperature within plus or minus 0.1 of a degree Celsius.
Ideas into action
David Grayden, Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at University of Melbourne, said entrepreneurship is vital to the future of Australia’s medtech industry.
“The industry is quite small, so it’s great to see engineers like Jacqui creating a business around her idea,” he said.
“The healthcare system is under pressure and the push to keep people out of hospital is only going to get greater in the future, so we need to be promoting innovation across the sector.”
Melissa Knothe Tate, Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of New South Wales, said entrepreneurship is now fostered in engineering courses across the country.
“We’re training the next generation of lateral thinkers, both in the classroom and in labs,” she said.
“There is a very strong focus on entrepreneurship and innovation at university level that wasn’t really there a decade ago. We’re also seeing our own homegrown successes, such as Jacqui Savage and the founders of Atlassian, and I think they are seen as an inspiration for other Australians to create something out of their ideas.”
How it works
Medcorp now employs a team of about 10, and Savage said its future lies at the integration of diagnostic devices and delivery devices.
Through the MedPro device, she has redesigned how infusion pumps operate with patented mechanisms that ensure high accuracy and control.
“The MedPro device is very lightweight and is designed to be comfortably worn under clothing,” Savage said.
“We’ve also designed fluid reservoirs, which are impregnated within textiles, so instead of walking around with a big fluid bladder of drugs, we’ve created quite a unique textile that can evenly distribute weight and that is embedded with biometric sensors. These sensors are the core intellectual property of MedCorp Technologies and we developed them from scratch.”
Savage describes her approach to engineering as “very user-centric”.
“My background is in product design engineering with a minor in biomedical engineering, but I also spent a lot of time shadowing doctors and nurses and patients. I wanted to ensure that the patient was at the centre of what I was designing but that doctors and nurses would also be comfortable using it.
“Out of our many years of development and manufacturing of sensors for measuring core body temperature, we’ve made some incredible discoveries in other areas of vitals monitoring.
“We’re heading down the path of developing very novel ways of monitoring biometrics from accessible locations such as the chest. We should have some announcements to make very soon.”
Biomedical engineering will transform the future of healthcare around the world and a promising innovation is being developed in the College of Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Scientists are working on a new capsule that can transport medicine through the bloodstream to target physical ailments intravenously.
Drug delivery vessels have traditionally been designed to avoid recognition by the immune system by mimicking naturally occurring materials in the body, such as cells or liposomes; however, they are not always durable enough to get to the far reaches of the body.
The new development from Drexel involves the creation of a highly durable polymer, described as a crystalsome, which is used to encase drugs and is considered more robust than the artificial nanoparticle packaging currently in wide use.
Test results have found that the crystalsomes can last in the bloodstream for up to 96 hours. Researchers believe the findings could signal a new generation of nano-materials for drug delivery and gene therapy.
This article was originally published as “Core concern” in the August 2019 issue of create magazine.