A device small enough to be delivered through the post and which allows doctors to remotely diagnose a common sleep disorder, could help millions of people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Following research carried out at Imperial College London and a clinical trial at the Royal Free Hospital, the AcuPebble SA100 device can now be used across the NHS to diagnose obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) – without any need for patients to attend hospital.

OSA is a serious condition, which causes sufferers to repeatedly stop breathing while they are asleep. Although patients always begin breathing again, their disrupted sleep means they are overly tired during the day. OSA is the second most common cause of road accidents due to tiredness and can lead to type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Until now, the condition can only be diagnosed using a complicated set of tests, which require patients to attend hospital and wear uncomfortable and complex devices overnight.

In contrast, the AcuPebble device, which is roughly the size of a 50p coin, is small enough to be sent through the post. It can be fixed to the base of the throat where it monitors breathing throughout the night.

The data collected by the AcuPebble device is then analysed by a computer programme, which automatically generates a diagnosis. All of this is done remotely, so there is no need for patients to attend hospital.

At the Royal Free Hospital, the research was led by respiratory consultant Dr Swapna Mandal.

She said: “It's thought that 1.5 million people in the UK have OSA, and at the moment, 80% of those remain undiagnosed. That equates to one in 25 men and one in 50 women.  We receive thousands of referrals every year, and it’s really challenging to see and diagnose all those patients. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more difficult.

“So it’s really great news that our research has shown AcuPebble is just as effective as the standard method of diagnosing OSA. It means we can diagnose more patients more quickly and reduce the number of times patients need to visit a hospital. Once we have a diagnosis we can offer patients treatment and improve their quality of life.”

Professor Esther Rodriguez-Villegas, who invented AcuPebble, said: “This device enables earlier, accurate and more cost-effective diagnosis of OSA. What’s more, with the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors are looking for ways to treat patients remotely to reduce the risk of infection. So it really is a game-changer with the potential to improve patient care and save millions for the NHS.”

AcuPebble SA100 has now been awarded CE mark approval – an international standard which means it can now be used by NHS doctors.

Timothy St Jean, a 48-year-old patient at the Royal Free Hospital, has experience of using both AcuPebble and the traditional diagnostic tests.

He said: “I noticed that I was getting tired during the day, and my children said to me that they could hear my snoring from my bedroom when their door was closed and when my door was closed.

“I was referred to a lung specialist who gave me this equipment to wear overnight. There was a belt that went across my stomach, and another one that went across my chest; there was also a device you put on your finger, and plastic tubing that went into your nose. It was quite a bit of equipment, and it wasn’t very comfortable to wear.

“In contrast, the AcuPebble was very easy, it’s got an adhesive on the back and you just stick it below your Adam’s apple. There’s an app you use on your phone which gives you a step-by-step guide to setting it up. It was very easy to use and very intuitive. Nothing gets in the way when you’re sleeping and you can turn over without disturbing the sensor. The AcuPebble was a lot easier to use than all the other paraphernalia.”

Image: Dr Swapna Mandal with the AcuPebble