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For veterinarians, a world-first implantable biosensor, VetChip, provides an innovative solution to continuous patient monitoring. By Dr Phil Tucak
As many veterinarians have experienced, taking the temperature of a fractious cat or anxious dog can be challenging. A decade ago, veterinarian Dr Garnett Hall experienced this exact situation when attempting to check the vital signs of several cranky cats and it led to a light-bulb moment that has resulted in the development of VetChip, a novel biotechnology solution for monitoring the health parameters of animals.
Hailed as a game changer for all industries that touch on animal health or welfare, VetChip is a world-first implantable biosensor that can continuously monitor an animal’s health and activity status.
The biosensor has been designed as a replacement and upgrade to existing identity microchips used in dogs and cats, and is slightly larger in size. It can also be used in livestock, such as for herd health monitoring and for horses used in racing and equestrian pursuits.
“As all vets would understand, taking vitals is hardly a pleasant experience for a nervous animal, and having had an interest in medicine and technology, I thought that there has to be a better way. Back when Fitbits were just starting to become popular in human health monitoring, a concept began to form in my mind about enhancing the existing animal identity microchip with health monitoring capabilities,” explains Dr Hall, the co-founder of VetChip.
“This is certainly not something I began to work on right away, but I could never stop thinking about the idea. I ended up writing down pages and pages of thoughts on how the device would work, where it would sit, what it would monitor and how it might improve the lives of animals—and vets!”
It’s taken several years, but through collaboration with a team of engineers, Dr Hall together with his veterinarian brother Dr Maxwell Hall, has progressed VetChip from a design concept on paper, through an intensive research and development phase, to production of a prototype that is now undergoing a final round of clinical trials with partner universities, before the device is expected to become commercially available in mid-2022.
The VetChip biosensor can monitor an animal’s temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, and tissue oxygenation. The device requires monthly wireless recharging via a specially designed hands-free charger that is similar in function to a wireless phone charger.
“Animals of all species all over the world need access to veterinary care, but many diseases can go undetected or undiagnosed because animals don’t always show obvious clinical signs, and they can’t tell us—using words—when they are unwell,” says Dr Hall.
“Veterinary clinics will always remain the point of primary healthcare for animals, however VetChip will enable vets to provide care that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the vet clinic.”
In 2021, VetChip was awarded the Science and Engineering category prize at the Curtinnovation Awards, run by Curtin University in Perth, where the VetChip team has collaborated on the commercialisation and innovation aspects of the technology. Dr Hall and his team have also fostered research partnerships with the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland.
Having grown up with a love of science, medicine and animals, Dr Hall remembers being torn between multiple career directions at the end of his high schooling. His career has since involved an array of pursuits including being a veterinary practice owner, army reservist and now chief executive officer of a biotechnology start-up.
“I ultimately chose to pursue a career in veterinary science, but always felt like something was missing from my professional life. Now, I’ve finally managed to combine all my interests in the one job and I am absolutely loving it!” says Dr Hall.
“After I graduated from the University of Queensland in 2006, I initially worked in mixed practice in Dayboro near Brisbane, and during this time maintained my involvement with the Army Reserve. I spent time on deployment to East Timor in 2010, and apart from my operational duties, my civilian skills came in extremely handy for the Task Force’s RAAF Military Working Dog detachment, whose dogs were encumbered by several tropical conditions in need of veterinary attention.”
Currently Dr Hall is president of the WA division of the Australian Veterinary Association, and in addition to owning two veterinary hospitals, he still has ongoing involvement with the Australian Defence Force, including working as a part-time veterinary officer caring for military working dogs. He has also participated in natural disaster responses, such as treating injured wildlife on Kangaroo Island after the catastrophic summer 2019-20 bushfires.
“We now have nine staff working on VetChip, with our office based in the Perth CBD where our team can work together, but we also continually collaborate with suppliers and consultants all around the world,” explains Dr Hall.
“We’ve had a lot of support from the local start-up community here in Western Australia. There are a lot of resources on offer from various levels of government and universities to take good ideas and bring them into reality. There has also been a lot of support from the veterinary profession—the amount of goodwill and excitement for VetChip really is incredible.”
For veterinarians VetChip provides an innovative solution to continuous patient monitoring, whether in a hospital setting or as an outpatient. “The standard of health monitoring available to animals has been rapidly falling behind the care that is available to human patients because the wearable tech options just don’t work on animals. Collar-integrated trackers give location and activity only, and they are prone to damage and the sensors struggle to penetrate through the animal’s fur.
“In fact, many collar-based systems cannot reliably tell the difference between an animal that is sleeping peacefully, and an animal that has died. So, I strongly believe that our animals deserve a better tech solution—which is why I created VetChip,” says Dr Hall.
For more information about VetChip, go online to www.vetchip.com.au/