Digital healthcare round-up - IBM team with MIA and MoleMap to take on skin cancer, Sonde Health seeks vocal biomarkers to tackle health issues, Kurbo to take on childhood obesity, and more

A round-up of this week’s top digital healthcare news. Marco Ricci reports.

IBM Research Australia to tackle skin cancer

With a relatively quiet week last week by IBM’s standards, this week the company made up for it, unveiling two new collaborations in the field of skin cancer.

IBM Research’s Australian division is to partner with both the Melanoma Institute Australia (MIA) and one of the world’s largest melanoma screening programmes in the world, MoleMap. The intended result of both projects is to improve the diagnosis and management of melanoma, avoiding unnecessary skin biopsies and improving clinicians’ understanding of skin cancer.

With access to the largest melanoma database in the world owned by the MIA, IBM Research plans to retrospectively analyse over one million dermatology images from around 9,000 patients in Australia and New Zealand with the aim to ‘learn’ and understand skin cancers, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. IBM will also have access to text datasets such as clinical notes to help IBM’s machine learning technology improve as it goes along.

The partnership will build on the 2015 collaboration between IBM Research and MoleMap in which over 40,000 datasets were analysed using IBM’s cognitive visual analytics technology with the intention of identifying dermatological patterns seen in the early stages of melanoma. The detection of melanoma from 12 benign skin diseases was around 91% when analysing dermoscopy images and 83% when analysing clinical photography images.

For Australians, the news is welcomed as the country’s prevalence rate of melanoma continues to be one of the highest in the world, with two in every three Australian diagnosed with the disease before the age of 70. Worldwide, almost all deaths from skin cancer are considered avoidable if caught early enough.

The research isn’t just promising for Australia of course. If this collaboration proves effective, there is little reason as to why IBM’s technology can’t be rolled out in other countries as well. MoleMap itself holds imagery from US skin cancer patients which, along with IBM Research’s 2014 collaboration with the US’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Kettering Cancer Center, will further bolster its potential use in US healthcare. In that study, a total of 3,000 images were analysed using IBM’s technology, achieving a diagnosis accuracy rate of around 95%.

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Monitoring health through ‘vocal biomarkers’

Machine learning and analytics technology isn’t just limited to visual datasets – it can analyse speech too. Sonde Health, an initiative launched by healthcare technology company Puretech, is one company looking to utilise speech analysis to revolutionise patient care.

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Sonde Health aims to leverage technology capable of identifying subtle changes in speech to help identify physical and mental health concerns. Revealed this past week, the company has now strengthened its technological approach, acquiring the exclusive license to the a health monitoring audio analysis technology developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory.

The technology, which won the depression sub-challenge at the 2013 and 2014 Audio/Visual Emotion Challenge (AVEC), uses computer analysis of speech samples to diagnose depression and estimate the severity of symptoms. The same technology has been used in further studies looking into a range of different disorders, proving its effectiveness in detecting and objectively measuring symptom severity in mild traumatic brain injury, concussion and even Parkinson’s disease.

Non-linguistic vocal characteristics, such as pitch, harmonics, articulation timing, hoarseness and breathlessness, can all be analysed using the technology to detect ‘vocal biomarkers’ of conditions. All of these biomarkers can be affected by changes in the brain’s neurological circuitry and musculoskeletal functions that can be caused by specific diseases or mental disorders. Intriguingly, the technology doesn’t analyse the actual dialogue of vocal samples, meaning the anonymity of the patient remains intact.

Sonde Health says it will now develop the technology for new products using platforms people already use and recognise.

Kurbo takes on childhood obesity

Obesity is one of the most serious health concerns of the 21st century, impacting elevating global rates of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Childhood obesity is of particular concern, as the number of overweight or obese children has reached an estimated 42 million in 2013.

One company aiming to tackle this problem is Kurbo Health, developers of a smartphone app aimed at helping children and teenagers better manage their health.

This week, Kurbo Health teamed up with US health insurance company Anthem Blue Cross and South Benito Health associates to pilot the technology in the San Benito county, California. The company’s app will now be made available to families throughout the area, giving children who exceed the 85th percentile for body mass index (i.e. overweight or above) access to a 90-day nutritional tracking programme.

The app, based on and licensed from technology developed by the Stanford Pediatric Weight Control Program at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, offers personal one-on-one training with an expert Kurbo coach; a child-friendly food ‘traffic light’ system to aid with food choices; 24/7 expert support via email, phone and text messaging; and games to help reinforce healthy eating choices. A food tracking portal is also available to help parents keep track of their children’s eating habits.

Although the initiative is relatively small, the intention behind the project is a promising one. The scale of the childhood obesity is enormous- in the US alone, one out of three children is overweight or obese and one out of three teens born after 2000 will go on to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.

If this initial pilot study succeeds, Kurbo could find itself at the forefront of a digital health technology movement that could make a big contribution in the fight against obesity.

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Marco Ricci is Staff Writer at pharmaphorum. Contact him at: marco.ricci@pharmaphorum.com or on Twitter @pharmaphorum_MR