The Faculties of Medicine and Engineering at UNSW are investing up to $1.8 million on projects that create technology-based solutions to address widespread health problems, including dementia.

The seed funding is being made available to solve clinical problems that will have a major impact on health issues such as sleep apnoea, keeping the elderly safe in their homes, improving medical image analysis and guiding radiotherapy treatments for cancer patients.

This is the first time UNSW has offered this type of partnership and funding for clinically led healthcare solutions that could be utilised by local area health districts.

The projects involve UNSW’s collaboration with Prince of Wales Hospital, Ingham Institute, Liverpool and Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centres and the CSIRO, with the aim for funding to lead to clinical trials and commercialisation of the four initiatives.

A new monitoring technology to help people with early dementia live at home for longer is one of the projects being developed by Professor Branko Celler, from the school of Biomedical Engineering.

“More than 410,000 people in Australia have dementia, with about 70,000 living at alone,” Professor Celler said.

“What we want to create is a low-cost, adaptable at-home technology device that can prolong the period of time someone with dementia can stay living independently.”

Working with a clinical care team, a virtual assistant system will be set up in the patient’s home with miniature speakers in each room that talk and instruct the person on daily and weekly tasks.

“It will be like Google Assistant and use minimal kit or gear in the home, with a visual display to help reinforce the audio-messages. The patient will also wear a fall detection monitor that will alert doctor to a fall, a drop in energy levels or sleep patterns,” says Professor Celler.

“A metric we are developing will then guide healthcare providers on when it is no longer safe to stay at home.”

Professor Celler is currently working with community nurses and Alzheimer’s clinicians to identify existing and new technology that can be used in a clinical trial setting.

“At-home telemonitoring is crucial for reducing expenditure on medical services, hospital admissions and the burden on the health system,” he said.

In another project, Professor Lynne Bilston, from UNSW Medicine and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), is developing a novel treatment device for obstructive sleep apnoea.

“New treatments for sleep apnoea are urgently needed,” said Professor Bilston.

“Many patients cannot tolerate the current the clunky and uncomfortable ‘gold standard’ treatment, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Other treatments are not effective for all patients.”

Sleep apnoea is an increasingly common sleep disorder that affects more than 9% of Australian adults. In sleep apnoea patients, the throat can collapse many times an hour, causing the patient to stop breathing repeatedly during the night. It results in excessive daytime sleepiness, increased risk of accidents, and cardiovascular disease.

Professor Bilston says that by developing and testing a new device to stimulate the muscles around the throat, “we can prevent the collapse of the upper airway that occurs during sleep in sleep apnoea patients.”

Other projects include improved 3D ultrasound medical image analysis tools and the development of radiotherapy software tools for patients suffering from prostate, lung and breast cancer.

The projects will be funded for three years.