June 29, 2021
Meet the zebrafish (Danio rerio), a tiny black-and-white striped member of the minnow family. Typically less than 2 inches long, zebrafish produce hundreds of offspring that completely mature from embryo to adult in less than three months. They’re inexpensive and optically transparent during development, meaning researchers can see through the embryos to study organ formation.
Zebrafish also bear a striking genetic resemblance to humans, sharing more than 70% of our genetic code. These traits have elevated the status of the teeny swimmers in biological and physiological research over the last decade or so, and they are currently playing a key role at startup Sensoriis, Inc., CALIT2 TechPortal’s newest tenant. The company, which seeks to create and market digital health and telehealth products for clinical and personal use, is conducting electrophysiological assessments of zebrafish to help it develop sensor-based solutions for humans. Its intricate sensing system allows Sensoriis to monitor the fishes’ physiological signals to gain a better understanding of human cardiac and neurological disease, assist in drug development and screening, and develop a host of consumer products.
Sensoriis’ chief technology officer is Hung Cao, UC Irvine assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science and biomedical engineering, who co-founded the company with Dr. Michael Lau, a board-certified OB-GYN who serves as CEO. Cao and Lau, both of whom have sensor expertise, met at the University of Washington several years ago, when Cao was on the faculty there and Lau, who was running a medical device company called Mirabilis, served on the school’s STEM advisory board.
At the time, Cao was working on a fetal electrocardiogram measurement sensor, which attracted Lau’s attention. “We decided to form a company and immediately came up with several patentable ideas, one of which recently was granted a U.S. patent,” says Lau, who also has an MBA.
Sensoriis, whose name is from the Latin for sensors, incorporated in 2016. It employs four full-time staff, including an engineering director, an electrical engineer and a senior scientist, as well as several part-time lab and business employees. The company, which moved into CALIT2’s TechPortal earlier this year, is in the process of additional hiring.
Among its ongoing projects are the fetal electrocardiogram patch, which will connect to a smartwatch or mobile phone and uses patented technology to help pregnant women monitor their babies’ heartbeats; and a closed-loop pH measurement sensor for laboratory applications. But the fledgling company’s primary focus is its zebrafish research, along with a wireless cloud-based technology it developed to analyze the massive amounts of resulting data.
The work is revolutionary. Although zebrafish have served as stand-ins for human physiological systems for years, previous zebrafish screening was limited to one fish taken out of water and deeply anesthetized – resulting in possible variations in functionality – before sensors were attached. The fish died quickly, and it was impossible to monitor several fish simultaneously, let alone in their natural habitat.
Additionally, all data processing and analysis had to be conducted manually, precluding large-scale studies. But Sensoriis, funded by Phase I and II SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants from the National Institutes of Health, is developing two important technologies: a new way to obtain electrocardiogram (ECG) and electroencephalogram (EEG) data from multiple fish and larvae in water, and a cloud-based system that can process, interpret and study the resulting large-scale data.
Sensoriis utilizes a perfusion system that provides low concentrations of anesthesia to the fish as they swim. Because the fish are only mildly sedated, measurements can continue for over an hour. Currently, four fish can be monitored simultaneously, and Cao hopes to increase that number to eight or even 16. “We want more fish to be tested but we also want reliable data,” he says. “We haven’t found our sweet spot yet.”
The company’s cloud-based analytics platform, dubbed the Sensoriis Mobile Data Management System, sends signals from the sensors through cell phones to the cloud, where advanced analysis occurs. “We like cell phones because everybody has them,” Lau says. “We don’t have to go through a fancy computer.”
Data analysis includes machine learning and transfer learning, a process that enables the data to be translated to understand other organisms. “We can transfer our findings between species to analyze things we didn’t know before. It is a powerful tool, marrying sensors that are very, very sensitive with a telemedicine system and cloud analytics,” says Lau.
The company uses the data to design cardiologic and neurological studies, as well as new drug screening protocols. “Drug development is so expensive, even in small animals like mice or rabbits,” Lau says. In fact, the average cost to develop a new drug is currently $1.3 billion, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.It is easy and comparatively inexpensive to study the effects of drugs, not only on the development of zebrafish embryos but on future generations as well. “With humans, you have to wait 20 years to examine future generations, but with zebrafish, you can see it in three months,” says Lau.
Specifically, Sensoriis is investigating the effects of drugs on cardiomyopathy – heart muscle degeneration – and arrhythmia. “Heart disease plagues the world as the leading cause of mortality,” Cao says. “Cardiac arrhythmia alone contributes about 350,000 deaths annually in the U.S.”
Because the sensors are also capable of measuring zebrafish brain signals though EEG, the company plans in the future to investigate the long-term effects of drugs on neurological conditions like epilepsy. “We can detect a really minute ECG or EEG signal from a fish,” Lau says. “And our mobile data management system allows us to do all kinds of analytics.”
Most of Sensoriis’ fish come from collaborator and customer Xiaolei Xu, who directs the Zebrafish Genetics Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic. Xu is generating embryonic and adult zebrafish models with modified genomes to study human cardiovascular diseases, including heart failure, cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia.
He and his researchers need reliable technologies that can measure phenotypes in these tiny, genetically modified fish. So Xu tests new products developed by Sensoriis, and provides feedback and suggestions. “Our collaboration is a perfect combination of two labs with complementary expertise,” says Xu, who is pursuing joint funding with Cao’s lab. “One of us has expertise in genetics and disease modeling, and the other in bioengineering and machine learning.”
He adds that the collaboration is “a perfect example of current biomedical research − teamwork is critical for making new discoveries. Our goal is to develop new methods that enable us to fully leverage powerful zebrafish genetics to discover novel mechanisms and therapies for human cardiovascular diseases.”
Sensoriis has an ambitious timeline: over the next five years, it hopes to have a wide range of products ready to market to a long list of customers, including laboratories, drug companies, consumers, physicians and large telehealth and wearables companies.
The fetal heartrate monitor that Cao began developing in Washington recently won an $80,000 POP (Proof of Product) grant from UCI’s Beall Applied Innovation funding program, which will allow the company to link maternal and fetal ECG data with that from embryonic zebrafish in the hopes of detecting congenital heart disease in unborn babies. “I have been pursing this for several years,” Cao says. “The POP grant validates our fetal/maternal ECG patches, and we have had good results with embryonic ECG in fish.”
In addition, the company plans to be well on its way to developing a medical-grade fetal well-being monitor that uses telemedicine to allow clinicians to screen patients from afar, as well as its wireless pH measurement sensor for labs. An STD (sexually transmitted disease) point-of-care test for consumers is also in the works.
“All the big data we are collecting from the zebrafish will help us develop much better analytics that we can use in the future,” says Lau. “It is all applicable to products in many fields, including cardiology and neurological science. Our goal is to use it to develop cutting-edge digital health and telehealth applications for affordable health care.”
– Anna Lynn Spitzer