For the first time, an Israeli company has been accepted into a prestigious program run by GE Healthcare, one of the biggest health-tech companies in the world. Oxitone, located in Ashkelon, was selected for GE Healthcare’s Start-Up Health Academy Entrepreneurship Program, a three-year arrangement where start-ups enter as fledgling businesses and emerge ready for prime time.

“Thirteen companies were chosen for this program; only two — including ours — were from outside the US, so we consider it a great honor,” said Dr. Leon Eisen, CEO of Oxitone and inventor of the device with the same name. Actually, Eisen told The Times of Israel, Oxitone is much more than a medical device. “We are actually trying to change the paradigm of safety, via constant monitoring of blood-oxygen levels. With our device and platform, doctors will be able to keep a much better eye on chronically ill patients, and save the lives of many patients who die from an unwitnessed attack.”

It’s a paradigm that might have made life a little more comfortable for Apple founder Steve Jobs, according to his biographer.

The Oxitone device is an innovative blood-oxygen monitor, called an oximeter, worn on the wrist. The blood-oxygen level is a critical statistic for patients with forms of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), who need to ensure that enough air is getting into their lungs. COPD usually accompanies diseases such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which cause the air passages to the lungs to become narrower and limit the availability of oxygen. Patients feel short of breath; they are limited in their capacity for physical activity and are at risk if they overdo it.

COPD is the third-highest cause of death in the US; in 2007, it cost the American economy $42.6 billion in health-care costs and in lost productivity. Worldwide, over 500 million people suffer from chronic conditions that put them at significant risk of pulmonary or cardiac dysfunction, with an overall average annual cost of more than $120 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.

Doctors use a device called an oximeter, aka a saturometer, to monitor the oxygen saturation of a patient’s blood; this bypasses the need to take a blood sample. Medical care personnel can monitor the level of oxygen in the blood, and inform doctors if the oxygen levels fall too far. Oximeters in the doctor’s office or the hospital generally require the patient to be hooked up to a battery of machines and monitors, which analyze the information. Numerous examinations are necessary; the patient has to repeat the routine several times a day.

There is an alternative to full-scale blood-oxygen measurement — a handheld pulse oximeter, which uses infrared light to measure the pulsation of capillaries in the finger. These devices are considered only somewhat accurate and, to boot, often entail finger pain. Current iterations of the oximeter feature “jaws” that must be clamped on to a fingertip or an earlobe — translucent parts of the body that allow the oximeter (which is based on photodiode technology) to check the level of oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin in the system. Considering that this procedure takes place several times a day for lengthy minutes, patients often complain of finger pain, said Eisen, even though the clamps are touted as being “pain free.”

Beyond the pain issues, home-care oximeters have another major drawback: Caregivers who monitor the results do so only several times a day, and they generally have to record, email, or call in the results. If blood-oxygen levels reach a dangerous level, the caregiver will alert medical personnel, or take the patient to the emergency room. But, said Eisen, it is not at all uncommon for patients to have “unwitnessed” attacks — life-threatening, blood-oxygen level incidents that take place when no one is looking.

Many of the victims of COPD and similar disorders die in this manner, said Eisen. Other than monitoring patients more constantly, there is little physicians can do. And that, he claims, is exactly what Oxitone does. “The Oxitone watch is the world’s first wrist pulse oximeter without a fingertip probe, enabling comfortable, remote and continuous monitoring of blood-oxygen level, pulse rate, beat-to-beat variation and activity anytime, anywhere.” In the event of a problem, Eisen claims, the device will immediately communicate with medical personnel via wireless technology; this will ensure that the problem is dealt with in the quickest possible manner.

“A Bluetooth-connected application obtains and analyzes the information and automatically alerts the emergency care services, explains the CEO. “A dashboard application highlights trends in the patient’s daily health profile, which is continuously uploaded to the cloud and filed with his personal health records.”

The technology for this kind of device has been around for several years, but it wasn’t until Eisen established Oxitone two years ago that these problems were addressed — why, he doesn’t know. But the idea was impressive enough for GE Healthcare to choose Oxitone as one of this year’s start-ups for the prestigious Start-Up Health Academy Program. As part of the program, GE will provide various forms of assistance to ensure that Oxitone is able to bring its prototype to market, meet with investors, and get ready for mass distribution of the system. GE Healthcare has committed $6 billion to finding ways to improve health and well-being around the world. “It’s a real honor,” said Eisen.

Eisen said that, indirectly, it might have been Steve Jobs who was responsible for GE Healthcare’s decision. “Our wrist device solves the problem Steve Jobs was complaining about, as cited in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography,” explained Eisen. “Isaacson recounted the experience of clinicians treating Jobs for cancer; they had to bring the Apple co-founder five different oxygen masks while he complained about the annoying pulse oximeter on his fingertip.”

According to Isaacson, “Even when [Jobs] was barely conscious, his strong personality came through. At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask on his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. The doctors looked at [Job's wife], puzzled. She was finally able to distract him so they could put on the mask. He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex” (pg. 486).

So was Steve Jobs’s discomfort with his oximeter a factor in GE Healthcare’s choice of Oxitone? It’s impossible to say, mused Eisen. “But I am sure that if he had had a choice, Jobs would have chosen to use the Oxitone device — it is the opposite of ugly, complex, and uncomfortable.”