Alum Launches New Device to Detect Asthma Attacks Before They Begin

Right now twenty-four million people suffer with asthma in the U.S. causing almost 2 million visits to the emergency room each year. What if asthma sufferers could use a simple test at home that could prevent dangerous and painful attacks and many of these ER visits? That is the idea behind Aeris, a hospital-grade spirometer that will soon be launched by Knox Diagnostics, a company founded by Cal grad Charvi Shetty (BioEngineering ’12).

Shetty joined the A. Richard Newton Distinguished Lecture Series last night to share her story with students in a fireside chat with instructor Victoria Howell. Shetty’s visit was especially relevant for students because as Howell remarked, “Of all the speakers that we’ve had so far this semester, Charvi is the one that sat in your seats most recently.” (Shetty had taken the class in 2009.)

Alum Charvi Shetty demonstrates Aeris, a spirometer that can be used to detect oncoming asthma attacks.
Alum Charvi Shetty demonstrates Aeris, a spirometer that can be used to detect oncoming asthma attacks.

Shetty believes that her background and upbringing had a big effect on who she is today. Growing up, she was immersed in diverse cultures while living in India, Philippines, Uganda, and the U.S., “Part of the reason for that was that my mom wanted us to question everything — not to just accept things for the way they are — she wanted us to think differently.  Growing up, she wanted me and my brother to be very open-minded. She felt like the only way to really do that, was to fully immerse ourselves in a different culture.”

Shetty’s mom is a nurse and her dad a businessman, so she felt like bioengineering would be a natural fit for her.  Further, biotechnology was especially exciting for Shetty because she believed there was much left to discover and that she could make a tangible impact, “Any science that is relatively unchartered is something that deeply fascinates me because I wanted to immerse myself in a region where there is a lot more to be discovered — and I wanted to be part of that journey.”

Shetty cited BioEngineering Professor Amy Herr as someone who influenced her here at Cal and was a big catalyst for her in forming her company and the idea behind Aeris, “I enjoyed her way of thinking in terms of not just building solutions for the sake of building the solutions, but really delving into the clinical needs, and then building the solution after you do that process.”

It was during the BioEngineering 192 class with Professor Herr that Shetty learned more about the need for a better solution for asthma sufferers. She became very interested in the problem and soon discovered that many of her friends currently suffered from asthma — including her roommate at Cal, “After speaking with her, I learned that her parents didn’t really let her go outside the house when she was younger. The main reason was that there were a lot of triggers outside the home that would lead to an asthma attack for her. So, she was telling me that rather than remembering things like going to Disneyland, her childhood memories were filled with visits to the ER or being hospitalized. Even from speaking to a lot of my friends [with the disease], I learned that the solution they were using 20 years ago is still the solution that they are using today.”

The twenty year old solution that Shetty is referencing is more of a reactive approach vs. a proactive one.  Right now parents of children with asthma and adults suffering from the disease mostly rely on symptoms — coughing, wheezing — to detect when an asthma attack is on the way. The problem with this approach according to Shetty is that by the time these symptoms appear it is usually already too late and many end up being hospitalized or going to the emergency room.

“The most important thing for us is that the product works well — and very very well — and that it is actually loved by a lot of people.”

While pursuing a master’s degree at UCSF, Shetty took the Lean Launchpad class with Stephanie Marrus and Steve Blank where she investigated the problem of asthma further. For the class, Shetty conducted over 100 interviews where she learned from clinicians that better technology exists that could help detect asthma attacks before they start.

Around this time, Shetty met her future co-founders — both asthma sufferers and Cal grads — Huyson Lam (EECS ’12) and Inderjit Jutla (EECS ’14).  She met Jutla by joining a team with him in January 2014 for the Diagnostics by Design hack-a-thon hosted by CITRIS.  Their team placed 3rd in the competition which earned them a $5,000 prize and space and mentorship at the CITRIS Foundry, which they used to build the first prototype of Aeris.

After successfully building a working prototype at the Foundry, Shetty and her team were able to apply for a grant through UCSF to validate that their device worked as well as a hospital-grade spirometer.  The trial was successful and now the team is waiting for FDA approval and hopes to launch the product directly through their website and on Amazon by next fall.

Shetty sees the product as analogous to a blood glucose monitor for diabetics. Users will blow into the device daily and use a smartphone app to see results. The device measures the velocity of air flow over time in order to determine lung capacity and thus the relative level of obstruction that the user is currently experiencing.  The user may not be experiencing any asthma symptoms but the device may still show obstruction days or even weeks before the symptoms occur, giving the user a chance to use medication in order to regain lung capacity and prevent the oncoming attack.

While the device will work for any asthma sufferer — and may even help monitor other respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) —the Aeris is focused on kids.

“Although kids only encompass a quarter of the total asthmatic population, they are the ones that are the driver of hospital and ER visits,” said Shetty. “They account for nearly half of them. So, we decided to focus on them, because they are the ones that greatly need it.”

To make Aeris more kid-friendly Shetty and her team created a game for the accompanying smartphone app. So, when the user blows into the device they are lifting and navigating a hot-air balloon. The game also includes incentives such as new locations and balloons.

Through her journey, it’s clear that what drives Shetty is making something tangible that will have a direct impact.

“The most important thing for us is that the product works well — and very very well — and that it is actually loved by a lot of people,” said Shetty.

Watch the entire lecture below

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