Getting the measure of stress

A UK medical technology specialist has developed an ultra-compact mass spectrometer that it claims will allow top athletes to measure their body’s performance under stress more accurately.

A UK medical technology specialist has developed an ultra-compact mass spectrometer that it claims will allow top athletes to measure their body’s performance under stress more accurately.

The high-speed diagnostic ergospirometer, launched by Birmingham-based Ferraris Group, is intended for everyday use by major sports teams and research centres.The new equipment is also being used by technology specialist Qinetiq to take medical data from airforce pilots under extreme flight conditions such as high altitude and pressure.

The ergospirometer is designed to deliver instant readings on the performance of the heart and lungs – the two key indicators of athletic performance – during and immediately after exercise or other stress.

Cardiac monitoring is provided by conventional ECG sensors. But Ferraris claims the breakthrough in its latest device comes by using mass spectrometry to carry out gas analysis of the breath – allowing measurement of exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood and the lungs. A mass spectrometer measures the molecular weight of individual compounds, allowing them to be separated and analysed.

Kevin D’Silva, Ferraris group managing director, said: ‘The only way to measure blood gas, apart from taking large blood samples, is via breath. The fastest and most accurate gas analysers are mass spectrometers.’

But D’Silva said they have traditionally been too bulky to be practical for use outside laboratories. This means breath analysis has usually been carried out using slower, less accurate techniques, and well away from the track or playing field.

Because analysis is done at the same time on a ‘breath-by-breath’ basis the company claims the ergospirometer can give a far clearer picture of an athlete’s true performance level.

‘What we have done is to reduce equipment the size of half a room into the size of a laptop computer,’ said D’Silva. ‘That is the key ingredient we have brought to the pot.’

At £25,000, Ferraris hopes the device will be within the price range of major sports research centres and wealthy private buyers such as Premier League football clubs.The system has already been cleared for sale inside the EU.

Ferraris received a further boost last week when it was given clearance by the US Food and Drug Administration to sell the ergospirometer across the Atlantic, where it believes there is a potential $40m (£25m) annual market for its technology.

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