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A new sensor from QLD-based company, WearOptimo, could provide medical professionals with a tool to forecast which COVID-19 patients are on the path to severe respiratory distress allowing earlier, more appropriate treatment.

The company’s device monitors the reaction of the body’s immune system to the disease. It measures levels of a protein called IL-6, an inflammatory cytokine that is produced to help tackle infection but can cause damage to organs and tissue when the body produces too much of it.

Early research has suggested that IL-6 is a key discriminator between those COVID-19 patients who progress to critical illness or death, and those who do not, having linked the protein to a variety of poor outcomes including inflammatory pneumonia. The levels of IL-6 are typically very low in healthy people but in COVID-19 patients who go onto become the most critically ill the amount in the body can rise by 10 to 100 times – part of what is termed a “cytokine storm”.

WearOptimo’s sensor is designed to provide real-time monitoring of IL-6 levels, over hours or days if necessary. It then sends the accumulated information to a medical professional’s smartphone or computer, Dr Anthony Brewer, Head of Research and Development at WearOptimo, explained.

“Continuous monitoring of IL-6 will yield insights into the systemic proinflammatory response, and inform on the risk of imminent cytokine storm, empowering clinicians to make improved management choices earlier, streamlining decisions to treat with IL-6 inhibitors,” Dr Brewer said. “This will have the beneficial effect of conserving global stocks, as well as reducing off-target side effect profiles in those unnecessarily treated.”

The device is a microwearable – it is applied as a wearable sticker onto the patient but features a series of microstructures that reach a hair’s width into the skin, causing no pain but providing the sensor with access to the rich source of biomarkers present inside of the body.

The platform technology was originally being developed to monitor troponin – a protein that can indicate damage to the heart – or hydration levels in the elderly. However, by only adapting the sensing surface chemistry, the team were quickly able to pivot to focus on IL-6.

The team have been working with ANFF experts in Queensland and Victoria over a number of years to develop the sensor’s platform architecture, applying ANFF’s cleanroom-based nanofabrication techniques.

WearOptimo’s innovative sensor is developed and will be manufactured within Australia, using the country’s world-class manufacturing and testing facilities. The company has assembled a taskforce that includes engineers and clinicians fighting on the frontline against COVID-19 to reach its aims to deploy the first of its sensors into hospitals this year. The team are now preparing for human trials.

The intersection of entrepreneurial expertise, innovative products, dedicated professional and the support of world-class research infrastructure has allowed the rapid development of this timely intervention to assist in the most significant medical challenge in a generation.