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Vest’s sensors monitor vital signs in action

LifeShirt could help athletes, drug-test users

SHARE Vest’s sensors monitor vital signs in action

Thundering into a curve halfway through the Indianapolis 500, rookie driver Jon Herb crashed into a wall at 180 mph.

Luckily, he escaped injury. And thanks to a medical-tracking device he was wearing during last month's race, he knows his body's reflexes didn't dangerously spike during the heat of the crash.

The high-tech garment showed that Herb's heart rate — already revving high but steadily at 140 beats per second — barely changed as he zoomed around the corner and clipped a slow-moving car.

"There's nothing you can do once you lose control," he told the Associated Press afterward.

But Herb also learned that he can improve his performance by slowing his breathing a notch to get more oxygen to his brain and keep up with his adrenaline.

The device, called a LifeShirt, is awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration. But its makers are already eyeing countless uses outside the hospital environment — from athletes on the field to clinical test subjects for pharmaceutical companies.

"This is something I could put in a FedEx box and send off to a patient," said Chris Landon, director of pediatrics at Ventura (Calif.) County Medical Center, who remembers the days two decades ago when his patients had to be hooked up to machines the size of refrigerators.

"I have patients who drive hundreds of miles to see me," said Landon, whose hospital is testing the LifeShirt. "With this device, they could be in Lompoc, Calif., and I could monitor their progress."

Others say the device has whiz-bang appeal but is unlikely to find wide use until insurance companies help foot the bill and its benefits to doctors outweigh the costs.

"Think of the litter of exercise devices that have gathered under people's beds or go to the attic," said Brad Holmes, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Until it's reimbursed by a third party, it's going to be a niche application for pharmaceuticals, the military, athletes or affluent hypochondriacs."

The LifeShirt system packs the machines that gauge a body's vital signs into a mobile format: a snug cotton-lycra vest with embedded sensors. The sensors connect to a data-storage program inside a handheld computer that can be clipped to a belt.

Without puncturing the skin, the shirt can track more than 30 physiological signs, including cardiac and respiratory signals, according to the maker, VivoMetrics Inc. Unlike the electrocardiogram machines tethered to hospital patients, the device can go wherever patients travel.

The Ventura-based startup is among a growing number of companies that are merging the latest Internet and data processing technologies with medical science, forming the so-called emerging field of e-health.

Sensatex Inc., a New York-based startup, has developed a similar product called SmartShirt, based on research funded by the U.S. Navy. Sensatex calls it a "wearable motherboard" that can locate a bullet wound and transmit key vital signs to an attached pagerlike device.

The Health Buddy Appliance, made by Health Hero Network Inc. of Mountain View, is a Web-based device that allows the chronically ill to consult daily with their doctors about their symptoms.

A LifeShirt, sized men's large, weighs about 10 ounces, not much different from a bicycle jersey.

Its sensors are woven inside thin elastic bands. Electrodes can be attached for electrocardiogram readings, and a thimblelike finger clip can be attached to check oxygen levels in blood. All this data are is time-stamped and can be correlated with a diarylike software program that tracks a patient's symptoms and activities.

The data are stored on a flash memory card of the handheld computer — a Handspring Visor with a special module — that can be mailed to VivoMetrics' data center for analysis or be downloaded, encrypted and sent over the Internet to the company's servers.

VivoMetrics considers the LifeShirt only a tool for its real mission — as a medical information company.

The company hasn't determined all the details of its business model or any prices or fees — and is not allowed to discuss marketing until it receives FDA approval. But chief executive officer Paul Kennedy said the company plans to make money from the analyzed data.

VivoMetrics says it doesn't expect any obstacles to FDA approval, since the monitoring technologies behind the device have all been approved previously under different formats.

Frank Wilhelm, a senior research scholar at Stanford University's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has written a paper on how the device "could open a new era in ambulatory monitoring" for lung and heart patients.