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Local firm aims to save lives by identifying deadly dehydration

Dehydration is one of the primary causes of preventable hospitalizations in the U.S. A Bay Area biotech company is working to solve the problem with a relatively low-tech approach.
In California alone, more than 16,000 preventable hospitalizations were caused by dehydration in 2008. Infants and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Promptly diagnosed, dehydration is easily treatable but untreated it can lead to seizures or death.
Until now, no simple test has been available to measure dehydration. Doctors look for sunken eyes, low blood pressure, rapid heart rate and poor skin turgor when trying to diagnose dehydration. Tests are feasible but involve laboratory tests like checking blood electrolytes, urine specific gravity or blood urea nitrogen.
Cantimer, a Menlo Park-based company, wants to change this. It has developed a device that measures hydration from a drop of saliva. The device is still being tested, but the company hopes to have it on the market in the first half of 2012. Robin Stracey, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said that considering what it can achieve for public health, there’s nothing too complicated about the technology:
How does your device work?
It uses a specific biosensor we developed. We measure saliva osmolality, which, simply put, is the concentration of saliva. The principle is that as you dehydrate your saliva becomes progressively more concentrated. It's logical but we've demonstrated in clinical studies that that correlation is linear across the entire clinical range of interest (that is relevant to humans). Our sensor-based device combines silicon micro-cantilever and a hydrogel sensing polymer (see picture) to measure osmolality.
How would you describe the importance of the device?
It's a new paradigm, in that the technology is very simple. The device is very simple. It's about the size of a cell phone. It's pretty inexpensive to make and buy (Cantimer estimates that the device could be sold for $150–$200). For the first time, clinically dependable field assessments of hydration status are possible. Picture users such as high school athletes, frail elderly, mothers with small children, people with chronic illnesses and firefighters or emergency personnel susceptible to heat-induced illness, for example. For the first time the testing can be put in consumers' hands. Our expectation is that eventually hydration assessment will become a routine vital sign measurement — just like body temperature is.
What other applications does the technology have?
What we have done so far are proof-of-concept type of experiments. The same basic sensor technology platform can be applied to detect and measure a broad range of different things. Eventually we expect to be active in bio-defense, in point-of-care diagnostics, consumer health applications, environmental monitoring — all large, growing markets. The sensor technology is the same, each application will just require a slightly different polymer component in the sensor.
When do you expect to have the dehydration application on the market?
This device, all being well, will be on the market in the first half of 2012. We will go through a Food and Drug Administration approval process. We expect to have that complete by the end of 2011 and we’ll scale up the production of the sensors and (are) planning to launch in early 2012.
Are other companies developing similar devices?
This is a first in the sense that there are many approaches to hydration measurement but nothing on the market can yet measure total body hydration from a saliva sample. We think we’ll be the first.
How have you funded your work until now?
It’s been a combination of corporate partnerships and government grants. Because of the relatively anemic venture financing environment over the last couple of years — due to the financial crisis and so on — we found it more productive to fund the company through collaboration with corporate partners with an interest in applying our technology to their specific challenges. Typically those companies will invest in Cantimer, take an option to a license, fund research to develop an application and then, if it’s successful, take an exclusive license to the application and commercialize or help us commercialize the end product. We’ve also been fairly successful with government grants and contracts with the Department of Defense.
What is the DOD’s specific interest?
The military and first responder communities want to prevent heat illness, heat exhaustion and heat stroke in military personnel in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Firefighters are obviously in extreme environments. A firefighter wearing heavy protective clothing with a self-containing breathing apparatus can lose a liter of body fluid in 20 minutes, making them susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The firefighting community wants to measure or monitor the hydration status of firefighters in the field, as with the military personnel.
Which do you think will be the bigger market, the consumer market or healthcare professionals?
Ultimately we think the consumer opportunity will be larger. We see low-hanging fruit in terms of opportunities in the athletic community. Among the medical applications and large markets will certainly be the elderly, the skilled nursing facilities, the assisted-living centers.