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According to anxiety.org, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting an estimated 40 million American adults, yet only one-third of adults and one-fifth of teenagers actually receive treatment. TenseSense, a startup out of the University of Illinois, is hoping that a simple and quick way for detection may have an impact on the amount of cases that get treatment.

Research from seniors in bioengineering in the lab of assistant professor Dipanjan Pan have created a device, which can serve as an instant indicator of elevated stress levels and thus allow a patient to know if they should seek treatment for anxiety.

“Mental illness affects so many people,” said Margaret Barbero, one of four co-founders of TenseSense. “It is an area of medicine that is not as characterized as say heart disease. We have found that to be an area of big growth and one that we can have a huge impact. We hope that it can help bring more attention to mental health in general.”

Team TenseSense (from left to right: Ayako Ohoka, Margaret Barbero, Aneysha Bhat, Karthik Balakrishnan), is working to develop a way to personalize prognostic procedures in mental health.

“The current method for detecting stress levels is a blood test, which costs in the neighborhood of $1500 and can take up to a week or process,” said co-founder Aneysha Bhat. “A psychiatric visit could be up to $300.”

TenseSense uses saliva for the test. Patients spit into a cup and dip an indicator strip into the sample. The strip is run through a small electronic device, which produces a reading correlating to the concentration of certain hormones and biochemicals related to stress. Similar to a home pregnancy test, the reading would serve as an indicator of stress levels, not a clinical diagnosis, but reliable enough to tell if the patient should seek further evaluation for an anxiety disorder.

“The electronic output would be converted into a number,” Barbero said. “We have developed an algorithm that can be compared to normal, which also takes into account the time of day.”

“This method is similar to the ‘lab-on-chip’ technology that exists for cancer detection,” said co-founder Karthik Balakrishnan, a senior in both chemical engineering and bioengineering. “We are taking that same idea and implementing it to mental illness. The difference is instead of needing a lab and training, all you need to know is how to manipulate the device. We want to break it down for the user so they have access to the same type of technology.”

According to Bhat the early estimates would be that the electronic device would retail for around $100 and the disposal strips around $8 each. TenseSense is initially targeting clinics at schools and universities as well as hospitals, but hopes to make the device available to individual consumers eventually.

“Anxiety is huge problem on campus,” Bhat said. “Everyone gets stressed out, which means we all can relate. However, anxiety is also a serious mental health problem and definitely shouldn’t be taken lightly. Our motivation was to address the fact that there is an unmet clinical need for this kind of device.”

Barbero notes that the device falls very much in line with a national trend of personalized medicine, a concept that is being heavily funded by both the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

“We want to address the fact that because mental illness is kind of misunderstood, we can’t really qualify it,” Barbero said. “We are trying to find a way to personalize treatment and make individuals comfortable with their medications.”

While anxiety is a disorder in of itself, it can also be a precursor to other serious problems such as heart disease.

“If we can start by developing a prognostic tool for one thing, it can lead to so many other pathways of debilitating conditions so we can personalize treatments further,” Bhat said.

In addition to participating in the Cozad New Venture competition, the team developed a pitch for Saint Louis University’s Real Elevator Pitch competition in December and received second place in a regional TigerLaunch competition. They are competing for a $30,000 investment prize at the TigerLaunch finals April 8-9 at Princeton University while also presenting at the TedX event April 23 at the U of I.

The product is currently in the fabrication phase with the goal of producing a working prototype by the end of the Cozad competition. Their participation in the handful of competitions has also coincided with meeting potential venture capitalists, who have validated their idea. In addition, the team, which also includes Ayako Ohoka, has met with physicians at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, who see a lot of potential for the concept. They are hoping to get funding for FDA testing this summer and set up clinical trials at Carle by the end of the calendar year.

“When we talk about it with venture capitalists and physicians, it is something that is relatable to them and they want to know more about it,” Bhat said.

“How many times do you go to the doctor because you feel anxious? Probably never.” Barbero concluded. “There is a huge group of people who aren’t getting the treatment they need. We want to reach out to those people and say we have a way to help you. Perhaps in addition to getting their blood pressure checked, they can also spit into the cup and check their anxiety level.”

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