When I spoke with Dr. Maria Artunduaga, she was excitedly out of breath, having just received word that she was awarded an NSF grant to help fund research involved with the company she started, Respira Labs. She is developing a wearable device that uses low cost, off the shelf technology (including a patient’s own cell phone) to help patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) monitor lung function in order to identify flare-ups before they happen. A flare-up in COPD is like a heart attack in the lungs. It causes permanent damage to lung tissue and increases the risk of fatality. If a patient is able to get an alert from their cell phone that air is trapped in their lungs, indicating a potential flare-up, they can take the appropriate preventative measures (which might include using a different inhaler, starting breathing exercises, taking antibiotics/steroids, or increasing their oxygen).
Dr. Artunduaga didn’t start out as an engineer. She has a medical doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. After working in emergency medicine she received a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University to study genetics. Her journey to becoming an engineer began when she faced discrimination, both for being a woman and being Latina, during a plastic surgery residency at the University of Chicago Medicine. She left clinical medicine and began to pursue an idea to use technology to help patients with respiratory problems, an area of medicine that hadn’t seen any major technological advances in a half a century. The idea began years earlier with the loss of Dr. Artunduaga’s grandmother to COPD. Her abuela (grandmother in Spanish) wanted to remain independent and passed away due to damage from a respiratory attack (exacerbation in medical terms). It’s difficult for COPD patients to tell the difference between symptoms from non life-threatening causes and those caused by worsening lung function that could lead to an exacerbation. If there had been a way for her abuela or family members to receive notice that her lung function was changing, her life could have been prolonged.
Dr. Artunduaga’s abuela was in her mind one day while talking to another doctor about how flare-ups are caused by air that gets trapped in the lungs of patients with COPD. Measuring the air in the lungs is a challenge. Home monitoring systems that measure blood oxygen levels are insufficient and CT scans are expensive, inconvenient, and dangerous to use frequently on a patient due to radiation. She remembered a lesson in her high school physics class where the teacher described how light changes when it passes through different substances. She wondered if sound would do the same. She began to do research and contact friends with engineering degrees to help her with some of the details. The result was a prototype.
“Our device will replace inferior home lung function monitoring technologies with a wearable device that accurately predicts the onset of acute respiratory attacks. It continuously measures lung resonance, any change in its baseline, caused by trapped air in the lungs, and signals an impending attack.”
Dr. Artunduaga now has two additional degrees, a Master of Translational Medicine (MTM) from UC Berkeley and UCSF, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Washington. She is working to build her company and secure funding to vet the product through rigorous research and clinical studies before bringing it to market. Always a doctor, the well-being of the patient is her first priority. Dr. Artunduaga embraces the challenges and hardships she faced because they led her on a path she would never have known existed. Her advice to others is to get comfortable facing down your fears and taking risks. Forget trying to achieve perfection and embrace your mistakes and failures as learning opportunities and incentives to keep trying.
“Nothing matches the empowering feeling of pushing yourself to grow, to show yourself and others that you accomplished something against all the odds.”
Maria Artunduaga received a 2009-10 AAUW International Fellowship that funded her postdoctoral research at Harvard University. Her story is told in partnership with AAUW, which has a long history of opening doors for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from the classroom to Capitol Hill.