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The science that connects chocolate cremes and chronic coughs

A novel test based on the viscosity of sputum can tell chronic bronchitis patients when a hospital visit is in order.

Health

Respiratory diseases including asthma, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are a major cause of morbidity in Europe. More than 4 % of EU citizens live with a chronic respiratory illness, and together these diseases account for 7.5 % of deaths. Patients often suffer acute episodes which require hospitalisation and emergency treatment; these cost around EUR 24 000 per episode. The EU-funded RheoCare project sought to develop a diagnostic test that can minimise these hospitalisations by more accurately forecasting acute episodes. “Patients suffering from chronic bronchitis produce a large amount of mucus, due to either viral or bacterial infection,” explains Jeremy Patarin, RheoCare project coordinator. “And at some point, this may block the lungs.” The solution is hospital treatment with antibiotics or corticosteroids, but there are reasons to minimise this. Patients may develop drug-resistant infections, and the long-term use of corticosteroids dampens the immune response potentially leading to other infections and diabetes.

Chocolate, cosmetics and coughs

“We know that, after a certain point, coughing or cell transport is no longer effective at clearing the lungs,” says Patarin. “But currently, the decision of when to hospitalise a patient is based on clinical symptoms; there is nothing to really assess patients qualitatively and objectively.” This is where rheology – the study of how matter flows – can help. The RheoCare project was hosted by Rheonova. The company offers services that asses the quality of everything from chocolate to cosmetics to petroleum by studying the physical properties of these fluids. Rheomuco is a device which can measure the viscosity of expelled mucus to identify when a patient should be referred to hospital. “Our goal is to treat people more precisely,” notes Patarin. “Patients with chronic respiratory illnesses may be hospitalised two or three times a year, with each visit lasting 10 to 15 days, so it’s a huge cost.” Currently the Rheomuco device is used in hospitals as a research tool, and cannot be employed for diagnostic use. In order to make it available to patients to use at home, the device has to be redesigned and clear regulatory hurdles.

Shrinking – and expanding

The project was supported by the Horizon 2020 programme. “The funding for RheoCare prepared us for the miniaturisation work that we need to make the device for home care, and also gave us space to think about how we access the market,” adds Patarin. As a result of the grant, Patarin says the company was able to partner with two other groups to work on the miniaturisation of the device, and investigate which diseases and indications it wants the device to be approved for. “Depending on the country and their healthcare system, the landscape is very different,” explains Patarin. “Some countries are moving care into hospitals, others are moving toward a remote model; we need something that can target all these cases.” Now, Rheonova plans to establish itself in a country outside of France and target the local market there. It also plans to raise funds through a further round of investment to make these plans a reality. Asked what drew him to work on the project, Rheonova president Patarin described it as: “A good mix of science, designing a user-friendly device, and offering great support for patients.”

Keywords

RheoCare, Rheomuco, respiratory, illness, chronic, cough, sputum, cystic, fibrosis, viscosity, diagnostic

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