Daniel Hurtado: Top Engineer Breaking Medical Boundaries in Chile

The academic was selected as one of the 10 most influential scientists for the future by the World Economic Forum.

24.01.2020 | by Christy Romer
Daniel Hurtado showing off DALI. Photo on BioBioChile
Daniel Hurtado showing off DALI. Photo on BioBioChile

There can be no doubt about it: Daniel Hurtado’s star is on the rise.

The young Chilean academic is on the cusp of releasing a cutting-edge medical device that could ensure the safety of people recovering from major surgery — and help elite athletes better prepare for major sporting events.

This comes after a bumper year in 2018, when his pioneering work on the heart and respiratory system made him the first Chilean to be offered a place on the World Council of Biomechanics. Hurtado was also selected as one of the 50 best scientists in the world under 40 by the World Economic Forum, which later elevated him to a list of just 10 people that it thought would have the strongest impact on the future of humanity.

In short, he’s built up a reputation in the medical world for getting things done.

What makes this doubly impressive is that Daniel Hurtado doesn’t even come from a medical background: he originally trained and practised as a civil engineer, ensuring bridges and buildings were built safely.



Road to DALI

Now Associate Professor at the Institute of Biological and Medical Engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC), a department he co-founded, Hurtado’s work is greatly improving the study of the heart and the lungs.

He first created a mathematical model of a virtual heart, helping doctors better understand the organ and cardiovascular disease — the largest cause of death worldwide.

He then heard concerns from hospital staff about children who have trouble breathing following a tracheostomy — a procedure that involves creating an opening in the neck to place a tube into a person’s windpipe.

After a multi-year R&D process, Hurtado created his game-changing device, DALI. This is a sensor stuck onto the skin between the upper lip and the nose in order to measure someone’s respiratory airflow, 24/7, in a non-invasive way.

“Dali is intended to be used in hospitals by patients that come out of a big operation — back surgery, etc — and these patients usually are in a lot of pain,” Hurtado explained in an interview with radio station Innovarock. “To tackle the pain, they’re given analgesics, of which the most effective are based on opioids.

“The problem is that opioids can depress the respiratory system — cutting the signals sent to lungs to make them breathe, and can even stop breathing altogether in the worst cases.”

The sensor measures airflow through the nose, which Hurtado is convinced means medical staff can know “within seconds, or at least within a minute,” that a patient has either stopped breathing or is breathing at a slow rate that is concerning. Irreversible damage can be done to the body if not enough oxygen is taken to vital organs, and Hurtado thinks competitor innovations– measuring signs in the trachea or lungs — are unable to work as effectively.

The project was supported by the Pontificia University and engineering consults Dictuc, and received a local Society of Anaesthesiologists prize.


Photo of runners


Photo of runners at New York Marathon 2019. Photo on Runner’s Tribe


Elite-level sports

In addition, Hurtado and his team were very aware of DALI’s potential applications for athletes. By measuring respiratory airflow, DALI alerts the presence of the first symptoms of exhaustion.

In particular, it aims to “detect the anaerobic threshold” to “optimise the training of athletes,” mainly in long-term activities such as marathons. Speaking on the university website, Hurtado explains that when this threshold — associated with the first symptoms of fatigue and exhaustion — is reached, training can be guided around this point. The tech was tested on a Chilean athlete, who was training for the 2019 New York marathon.

Hurtado added to Innovarock that his intention had always been to make sure his invention reached the market. “I feel as if we can have an impact on a short and medium term on society, and in that way, transfer all of the science done in the laboratory and help people today, or in a short-term future.”

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