Finger on the pulse of innovation

The University of Leicester is judged to have made the most outstanding research contribution to innovation and technology amongst British universities.
A sophisticated wristwatch device uses a sensor on the wrist to record the pulse wave and then accurately read the pressure close to the heart

Research that captured the imagination of our judges – that’s how the Times Higher Education viewed the work of the University of Leicester which won
the 2011 Award for Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology.

Beating off stiff competition from universities across the country, Leicester was praised for the transformative nature of its research.

The University has spearheaded the development of a world-first device that could revolutionise the way blood pressure is measured and monitored for the first time in more than a century.

Professor Bryan Williams, Professor of Medicine at the University of Leicester and a Consultant at University Hospitals of Leicester, has worked in academic partnership with HealthStats, a biotechnology company in Singapore, to develop a sophisticated wristwatch device that uses a sensor on the wrist to record the pulse wave and then, using computerised mathematical modelling of the pulse wave, scientists are able to accurately read the pressure close to the heart. Patients who have tested the new device found it easier and more comfortable.

The University of Leicester’s contribution to this discovery work was supported by funding from the Department of Health’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The NIHR has invested £3.4million with a further £2.2million capital funding from the Department of Health to establish the Biomedical Research Unit at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, dedicated to translational research in cardiovascular research.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for strokes, heart disease and premature death. It is also linked to an increased risk of kidney disease and dementia.

The standard way to diagnose high blood pressure uses a cuff inflated around the upper arm. However, it has been known for a long time that pressure in the large vessels close to the heart (e.g. the aorta) is actually lower than the corresponding pressure in the arm. This may seem surprising but is due to amplification of the pressure wave as it moves away from the heart to the arm.

Bryan Williams
Professor Williams with the Times Higher Education 2011 Award for Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology.

The degree of amplification of the pressure wave can vary with ageing, disease of the blood vessels and with medication. This means that the pressure measured routinely in the arm is not always a good predictor of pressure in the aorta which is the true pressure that the heart, the brain and other major organs actually experience.

Paradoxically, amplification is greater in younger people with healthy arteries. This means that some people with high blood pressure when measured in their
arm may actually have a completely normal central aortic pressure.

Working with biotech SME HealthStats, Singapore, our major challenge was to eliminate the amplification that increases the pressure in the arm to reveal the original pressure in vessels close to the heart.

In a development that can truly change the way blood pressure is measured around the world, the researchers developed a mathematical algorithm that
provides accurate measurement of blood pressure in the aorta and which has now been incorporated into a specialized watch that captures the pulse wave at the wrist.

This constitutes a world first device which can now be used to monitor ambulatory aortic pressure in clinical practice.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Spring 2012/Annual Report Edition 2010/11.

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