The same type of machine learning technology that can automatically organize Google photos might someday be used to prevent sudden death.
That's the vision of Vic Gundotra, chief executive officer of medical technology start-up AliveCor and a former executive at Google. Gundotra announced on Wednesday that his company is teaming up with the Mayo Clinic to develop tools to screen for a heart rhythm condition called Long QT that causes thousands of deaths per year.
AliveCor is also announcing its third round of investment from the Mayo Clinic in the past nine months, bringing its total funding from all of its investors to just more than $45 million. The company declined to comment on the details of its funding from Mayo.
AliveCor is best known for its Band-Aid-sized sensor called Kardia Mobile, which attaches to a smartphone. When users put their fingers on Kardia's pads, it takes readings called electrocardiograms that indicate problems with the electrical activity of the heart. Anyone can buy the device for $99.
The company is also developing a version of its Kardia device for the Apple Watch.
Gundotra said he came out of retirement to join AliveCor because he believed that artificial intelligence could be used for disease prevention. "Deep neural networks can uncover signals that human doctors often can't see," he said.
AliveCor already has the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to analyze electrocardiograms to detect an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation. So it is turning its attention to Long QT syndrome, an electrical condition in the heart that causes it to beat irregularly. The inherited version kills 3,000 to 4,000 people in the U.S. every year. (There's also a version that can be caused by commonly prescribed drugs.)
"The new partnership is another endeavor to look at the electrocardiogram signal and find another secret," Gundotra said. "The secret we are after is genetic Long QT."
Such technology could save lives, suggested Mayo Clinic's Michael Ackerman, given that the genetic form often goes undiagnosed until it's too late. "But when we find it, our treatments are incredibly effective," he said.
This technology is still in the investigational phase, stressed Ackerman, and Mayo and AliveCor will need to demonstrate that it's accurate and cost-effective. But his team at Mayo are hoping within a few years to develop a cheap and simple screening using AliveCor's Kardia Mobile. The idea is that anyone could use it, including coaches, primary care doctors and pharmacists.
Ultimately, if such a feat is possible, Ackerman hopes that the electrical heart cycle will be the "next vital sign," which is as common to measure as blood pressure.
"The goal is to prevent the sudden death of young people because of QT-related heart issues," he said.