Upstate inventors create first-of-its kind system to save lives

A prototype of a suicide detection system created by two Upstate Medical University forensic psychiatrists has the potential of saving lives and saving the nation millions of dollars in costs associated with monitoring suicidal adults in custodial care.

According to the psychiatrists, Andrew R. Kaufman, MD, and James L. Knoll IV, MD, if proven successful, the system could also revolutionize the way monitoring is done on these at-risk individuals in correctional facilities and psychiatric hospitals.

Designed for prompt detection of suicidal behavior, the system uses established technologies and is comprised of three major components: a wireless sensor worn by an at-risk individual, a networked backbone and base station, and individual staff communication devices.

To advance their efforts, the SUNY Research Foundation Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) has awarded the Upstate inventors with a $50,000 grant. They will use the grant to develop, test the system via clinical trial, and conduct market research on their prototype that would fall under FDA regulation. The grant recognizes their patent pending system for its potential for high impact commercialization.

Kaufman says that the system he and Knoll invented is the first of its kind to address the detection and prevention of suicide.

“To date, there is no scientifically reliable method of preventing suicides in these, or other settings,” said Kaufman, assistant professor of psychiatry and assistant director of the Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship program in Upstate’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “The current ‘gold standard’ for the prevention of suicide in an acutely at-risk patient is continuous one-on-one monitoring. In this instance, a staff member is assigned to sit and watch the patient. This method is prone to human error, is highly expensive, and is not the most optimal use of staff time.”

For example, says Kaufman, a typical hospital may pay in excess of $500 a day to monitor a single individual, and a jail housing 600 inmates can spend more than $250,000 annually for continuous staff monitoring of inmates who are a suicide risk.

Kaufman’s and Knoll’s system integrates pulse oximetry, wireless networking and location technology.

“Our monitoring system can detect suicide attempts quickly and trigger staff intervention in time to prevent not only death, but also permanent brain injury,” said Knoll, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship program at Upstate’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“The wireless sensor detects the pulse and oxygen level of the brain’s blood supply and transmits this data to the networked backbone and base station,” said Knoll. “When the sensor data indicates the pulse or oxygen level has fallen below pre-determined levels, an alert is immediately transmitted to staff. The staff response is monitored by other personnel using alarm modules linked into the networked backbone.”

If successful in this targeted population, Kaufman’s and Knoll’s system may prove to have a greater reach, including military use for soldiers who are at risk for suicide.

Their invention may also help to grow the economy. Kaufman adds that it their intention to form a start-up company based on this technology.

“Our proposed company, Zinnia Safety Systems LLC, will license the system’s technology from Upstate Medical University and will be located in the new CNY Biotech Accelerator in Syracuse,” said Kaufman. The CNY Biotech Accelerator is a joint program between SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Upstate Medical University. The intent of the Accelerator, to open in 2013, is to be the launching pad for new bioscience companies.

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death in correctional settings.

In addition to the TAF grant, Upstate Medical University’s Research Administration and Department of Psychiatry has each awarded the entrepreneurs with $5,000 to fund the first stage of prototype development.

Caption: Andrew Kaufman, MD, right, speaks with Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the governor’s visit to the CNY Biotech Accelerator in Syracuse Oct. 2.

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