Seed Grants

Each year, TRANSFORM HF’s offers Seed Grants to encourage, foster, and support members of our community working collaboratively on research proposals that align with our objectives and which fall under unique focus themes.

To apply for a Seed Grant or learn when the next competition opens, visit our Opportunities page.

2023 Seed Grant Project

Accessible Blood Pressure Estimation with Earbuds

Alex Mariakakis, Joseph Cafazzo, Heather Ross, Shumit Saha, Yuntao Wang

Frequent at-home blood pressure monitoring is crucial to hypertension and cardiac health management. However, consumer-grade blood pressure cuffs are limited in their pervasiveness and utility due to their nontrivial cost, varying accuracy, and infrequent usage.

Earbuds are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and afford many sensing opportunities. Most notably, the in-ear microphones found in active noise-canceling earbuds present a convenient way of recording internal body sounds. Recent research has shown that such earbuds can be used to record the sound of blood flow from the ear canal provided that the wearer is seated in a quiet room. These efforts have led to the development of earbud-based systems that can be used during telehealth consultations to estimate basic cardiac metrics like heart rate; however, the use of earbuds for blood pressure estimation has yet to be demonstrated.

The objective of this proposal is to investigate the feasibility of using active noise-canceling earbuds to estimate a person’s blood pressure during telehealth consultations. Using a new dataset that we will collect from human subjects spanning different degrees of cardiac health and blood pressure, we will investigate three approaches to blood pressure estimation: (1) we will adapt prior work that has leveraged chest phonocardiography to measure pulse wave velocity as a blood pressure proxy; (2) we will compute the difference in pulse arrival time to between the two earbuds to measure blood pressure via pulse transit time; and (3) we will use deep learning to analyze the earbud phonocardiogram and estimate blood pressure directly.

2022 Seed Grant Projects

Cardiovascular Care Experiences of Persons Experiencing Homelessness and the Co-Design of a New Care Management Program: A Community-Based Study in Toronto

Jennifer Gibson, Jillian Macklin, Heather, Ross, Andrew Pinto, Alex Zsager 

Heart failure and homelessness represent two devastating epidemics in Canada. The homeless population has a heightened need for longitudinal and comprehensive cardiac management given their unstable living environment and challenges in accessing care. To keep persons experiencing homelessness and heart failure out of hospital and empower them to maintain a dignified quality of life, we must put heart failure management in the context of their larger competing priorities.  

This research aims to develop a new cardiac care management program for persons experiencing homelessness in Toronto that meets them where they are. By working in partnership with community organizations, this community-based multi-method study will integrate the lived experience of persons experiencing homelessness into the co-design of the program. In Phase 1, we will conduct a needs assessment with persons experiencing homelessness and heart failure and with their multi-disciplinary care providers. This will include observational fieldwork, demographic surveys, one-on-one interviews, photovoice exercises, and community resource mapping to explore and understand their needs, barriers, and experiences, as well as their priorities in a new program. In Phase 2, we will co-design a new care program for the management of heart failure in persons experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto and undertake usability testing with a diverse team.  

Findings from this work will have implications for and provide practical insight into the way shelters, community health centres, outreach teams, and hospitals provide cardiac management for persons experiencing homelessness. The involvement of peer researchers ensures the research is guided by the needs of the community to create meaningful change. 


Skin-Tone Invariant Pulse Oximetry Through Wearable On-Skin Spectroscopy

Dan Franklin 
Graduate Students: Megh Rathod, Jonathon Wu, Anat Usatinsky 

Pulse oximetry is a vital monitoring tool clinicians use to track patient status. By measuring the absorption of two colors of light through tissue, pulse oximeters calculate arterial blood oxygenation which is a metric of cardiopulmonary function in patients with heart failure. However, studies have recently shown pulse oximeters overestimate blood oxygen saturation in dark-skin patients 3x more than in light-skin patients. This clinical bias could potentially leave at-risk patients to be overlooked because their metrics “seem” safe.

In order to correct for this bias, we propose an optical wearable that quantifies skin tone using novel optical sensors, and then develop skin-tone invariant arterial oxygenation algorithms. This work will demonstrate the design of advanced optical monitoring tools which will enable more equitable healthcare for the entire population of Canada.

Microfluidics for Diagnosing Heart Failure at the Point-of-Care in Remote Settings

Aaron Wheeler, Xinyu Liu, Heather Ross 

For millions of patients with cardiovascular disease, rapid detection of heart failure, injury, or ischemia is critical to ensure timely treatment, particularly in the case of suspected heart attacks. Diagnosis of heart failure is confirmed through the detection of molecules in the blood specific to the heart, known as cardiac biomarkers. In current practice, this requires access to a hospital equipped with a centralized laboratory. Access to centralized laboratories is inequitably concentrated in urban areas and disproportionately underserves Indigenous communities in Canada. 

We propose to bring heart failure biomarker testing out of the laboratory, directly to the patient, by developing point-of-care tests relying on ‘microfluidics’ (the study and use of fluid flowing in devices bearing microfabricated features). This TRANSFORM HF seed grant will catalyze the development of several new microfluidic point-of-care tests for heart failure biomarkers, culminating with a comparison of their performance evaluating patient samples relative to the “gold standard” techniques that are used in centralized laboratories. We will also develop the capacity for these tests to transmit results to cutting-edge digital heart failure monitoring systems. Finally, we will conduct a field test of our devices with patients in Northern Ontario, to evaluate their translational application to remote communities, as a step toward mitigating the inequities of centralized laboratory heart failure diagnostics.