Alphabet and iRhythm are teaming up on tech to detect irregular heart rhythms

Key Points
  • Verily and iRhythm announced a collaboration on Wednesday aimed at helping people who have a common heart rhythm disorder known as atrial fibrillation that puts them at a higher risk of strokes and other serious health outcomes.
  • That could be as many as 10 million people in the U.S., the companies say.
  • The Apple Watch also has an app and sensor aimed at detecting atrial fibrillation.
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Wearable heart monitor company iRhythm is teaming up with Alphabet's health company Verily on unspecified new technology that will monitor people at risk for atrial fibrillation, a common form of irregular heart rhythm that is associated with strokes and other serious health problems.

Verily and iRhythm aren't the only technology companies working on helping people at risk of atrial fibrillation, which impacts more than 5 million Americans today. Apple got a first-of-its-kind clearance from federal regulators for its electrocardiogram system. It provides both active and passive monitoring of potential cardiac irregularities.

The company's CEO, Kevin King, noted that the technology is intended "to help diagnose, manage, and eventually treat patients." But he declined to discuss the specifics about exactly what's planned. "There are certainly under consideration wearable devices, and there might be apps," he said by phone.

Verily's William Marks, who runs the clinical neurology group at the company, also noted that the service will be developed with doctors in mind so they won't feel overwhelmed by data. "We want to take the noise away from the signal and only present the signal," he said.

Unlike the Apple Watch, which is intended for a broad population of users, iRhythm and Verily intend to target their technology to people who might not know they have atrial fibrillation but are at risk of the condition because of factors like age and their medical history. The companies didn't say how they'd find those people, but did hint at the possibility of working with insurance companies. Through its research studies iRhythm has an existing relationship with Aetna, for instance.

Alphabet's life science's arm Verily teams up with big pharma to modernize clinical trials
Alphabet's Verily teams with big pharma

Specifically, iRhythm is looking at cases where the condition is asymptomatic or "silent," as studies are finding that as many as one-third of people with atrial fibrillation are not aware they have it. The company recently released results from its own study showing that those who got diagnosed with a monitoring device had lower rates of hospitalizations and emergency room visits, than those who did not.

Some doctors have expressed concern about Apple's approach of targeting the general population, because they fear high rates of false alarms that will send people to the doctor's office unnecessarily.

"The Apple Watch is too broad as it's a consumer device," said Nirav Shah, a neurology hospitalist who treats patients with strokes and is now working on a medical start-up. "I would think there's a big opportunity in stratifying those higher-risk patients and make a diagnosis faster."

"If you give the devices to people who might actually benefit, you are much more likely to see the benefit," added Jeffrey Wessler, a cardiologist in New York who runs heart health clinics known as HeartBeat.

As part of the agreement, iRhythm is making an upfront payment to Verily of $5 million and potential milestone payments of up to $13 million.

Verily, which was formerly known as Google Life Sciences, has ballooned to hundreds of engineers and scientists in recent years. Its teams are working on a broad array of products at various stages, and have struck deals with life sciences companies ranging from Dexcom to Johnson & Johnson. It recently raised $1 billion in a funding round led by the private equity firm Silver Lake.

Verily has some experience with incorporating health sensors into wearable devices.

One of its ongoing initiatives, Project Baseline, is a longitudinal health study that intends to show how technology can improve clinical trials. For that study, Verily developed a smartwatch that takes electrocardiogram readings to measure the electrical reading of the heart. That smartwatch is FDA cleared but it does not compete with the Apple Watch, as it is intended for medical research only.

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