Sleep apnea detector saves lives

OSA plagues millions, but an Israeli-developed device can help ensure that OSA sufferers wake up the next morning

Itamar Medical's WatchPAT in action (Courtesy)
Itamar Medical's WatchPAT in action (Courtesy)

When most people who are in relatively good health go to sleep, they are reasonably sure they will wake up the next morning. But millions of people around the world – those who suffer from advanced forms of sleep apnea – aren’t so sure, because they may suffer a heart attack or stroke.

For many patients, detecting severe apnea episodes is expensive and complicated – unless they are using a small, sleek device by Israeli biotech company, Itamar Medical, whose WatchPAT uses a novel technology to measure cardiovascular stress in patients who suffer from apnea episodes, and alerting medical or rescue personnel in time to save them.

Now, the innovative product is undergoing an upgrade, with the company hiring a new CEO who had a very successful career in the U.S. – but decided to come home in order to give his kids an “Israel experience.”

Sleep apnea is a condition where an individual has trouble breathing while asleep, with patients suffering from conditions ranging from short, shallow breathing to gasping and wheezing during sleep, to going for long seconds or even minutes without drawing a breath. The body needs oxygen 24 hours a day, and the body’s autonomic nervous system generally takes care of breathing while an individual is “out of it,” and when the body is denied a sufficient measure of oxygen, the results can include daytime fatigue, heavy snoring, and liver problems.

The most common form of the disease is called Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), in which individuals with low muscle tone – usually those middle-aged and older (most often men), but including overweight or out-of-shape younger people – develop a narrower breathing tube that restricts the flow of air into the body.

Choking from a lack of air isn’t the most dangerous part of OSA; if a person can’t breathe, he or she is likely to wake up right away. The greater danger is heart attack or stroke; as less oxygen gets into the bloodstream, the body works harder to pump in more blood so all organs and systems get the oxygen they need. As the heart pumps harder, OSA sufferers are at greater risk for a cardiovascular incident. It is estimated that as many as one in fifteen Americans 50 and over suffer from some form of OSA, with many of that group at much higher risk for heart attacks when they hit age 65.

Detecting OSA has traditionally been a hassle, requiring a complicated breathing monitor apparatus and a chest movement gauge. But Itamar Medical has a much more elegant, simple – and less complicated –solution, company CEO Gilad Glick told the Times of Israel. “We use a special technology called Peripheral Arterial Tone – PAT – to determine how well or poorly an individual is breathing, by measuring the ability of the arteries to expand after occlusion, and checking arterial function and the speed and health of blood flow.”

Itamar Glick (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Glick (Photo credit: Courtesy)

PAT technology involves monitoring the arteries to check on how hard the heart is working. Increased blood flow in the arteries is very often the result of breathing problems, a PAT monitor developed by Itamar Medical – called WatchPAT – keeps track of the flow. When it reaches a pre-programmed level, an alarm goes off, and an attending nurse or doctor can intervene to help the patient overcome the incident. According to the company – and the FDA, which has approved the device – WatchPAT produces similar results to polysomnography studies (comprehensive studies of the body’s activities while an individual sleeps, considered the most accurate means of checking for breathing problems, among other things).

Unlike the awkward and burdensome apparatus generally needed for OSA testing, said Glick, “we can do the test with a simple, light device, completely non-invasively.” WatchPAT has been on the market for about five years, said Glick, the company is going back to the FDA for approval of its latest improvement (the process will take six months or more, said Glick). “The WatchPAT currently on the market is made up of two parts – a finger probe that measures the blood flow, and a computer and recorder worn on the wrist, like a watch.” The new, improved WatchPAT will consist of a single unit, making it even easier to deploy, Glick said, and that will, he hopes, help popularize it in the medical community.

Glick has been CEO of the company for about six months, brought in specifically to help expand the product’s reach. “We have a great product but word hasn’t gotten out to the medical community yet,” Glick said, but he intended to change that. The company itself is 16 years old, and counts among its founders two of Israel’s most accomplished individuals – Dr. Giora Yaron, chairman of the Executive Council of Tel Aviv University, and Professor Peretz Lavie, President of the Technion.

And the story of Itamar Medical and WatchPAT is also the story of a homecoming. “I took this job because I believe I can help get the word out about this product, because I worked with many of the top people in the cardiovascular community in the U.S. for 20 years.” Glick lived in California until very recently, working as a top executive for pharma giant Johnson and Johnson. “I left that job, though,” Glick said. “I have three kids – 10, 7 and a half, and a year old – and I wanted them to live in Israel and get a Zionist and Jewish education. I enjoyed working for J&J, but when it comes to the kids, they come first.”

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