Canadian researchers have secured new funding to help develop a device that can turn any smartphone into a tool that can monitor blood oxygen levels – an innovation that may help prevent maternal and fetal deaths around the world.

Called the Phone Oximeter, the device consists of a software application and a non-invasive light sensor that attaches to a patient's finger. The app can be installed on any smartphone, tablet or laptop computer, and the sensor directs light waves through a patient's fingertip to measure blood oxygen levels (a process called pulse oximetry).

It is important for healthcare providers to be able to monitor blood oxygen levels, in order to detect hypoxemia – a condition in which the level of oxygen  in a patient’s blood is abnormally low. Early detection of hypoxemia can help prevent complications and even death.

Standard devices that monitor blood oxygen levels are usually found in hospitals and health clinics. But the Phone Oximeter seeks to bring the same technology to any standard smartphone, which would allow the device to be taken into remote communities.

The device can accurately identify an estimated 80 per cent of cases of pregnant women who are at risk of pre-eclampsia, the developers say.

Pre-eclampsia is a life-threatening complication afflicting pregnant women that's characterized by high blood pressure and a large amount of protein in the urine. Pre-eclampsia affects about 10 million women every year, with about 76,000 women dying from it annually. More than 500,000 fetus and infant deaths are also estimated to be related to pre-eclampsia.

One of the device’s developers, Dr. Peter von Dadelszen, of the University of British Columbia, called the number of deaths caused by pre-eclampsia "unacceptable."

"That equates to over 1,600 deaths of pregnant young women and babies every day – an unacceptable burden – and more than 99 per cent of these deaths occur in developing countries – an issue of social justice," he said in a statement.

The Phone Oximeter can also detect dangerously low oxygen levels in patients with pneumonia, a condition that kills more than one million children a year.

Once produced, von Dadelszen and his partners are aiming to sell the device for about $40.

Now the project, which had received an initial grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has received additional financial backing from a private investor, as well as a government-funded agency.

Irfhan Rajani, CEO of Vancouver-based Coleco Investments, provided a $1-million investment. This was matched by a $1-million grant from Grand Challenges Canada – a government-funded initiative that supports global health projects.

The device will first be tested in trials monitoring the blood oxygen levels of athletes. Longer trials will see it tested on a total of 80,000 women from India, Pakistan, Mozambique and Nigeria.

Grand Challenges CEO Dr. Peter Singer said the Phone Oximeter has the potential to save lives around the world.

"This life-saving device is the 'double-double' of global health – it leverages both the global ubiquity of mobile phones and the know-how and financial resources of the private sector," he said in a statement.

"We hope this innovation will move swiftly from its invention in a Vancouver lab to villages around the globe, creating jobs in Canada while saving lives around the world."