Brainstorm Health: Verily Eye Scans, Organs on Chips, Merck-Viralytics Deal

Hello, readers! This is Sy.

Google parent Alphabet’s life sciences arm Verily—the firm running an ambitious study to map a “baseline” of human health—may have an intriguing new way to assess heart disease risk: Through your eyes.

As with pretty much all things Verily, the method is centered on machine learning, as detailed in a report published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The Verily algorithm was trained using a dataset of about 300,000 patients, including eye scans and other medical information. Via neural networks, it then made connections between disparate data points—including between eye scans and the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease. (If you’re wondering, why eye scans?, the answer lies in the interior wall of your eye, or the “fundus,” which contains enough blood vessels to draw educated inferences about things like blood pressure.)

So how did the program fare? 70% of the time, it was able to correctly identify which of two patients had a “cardiovascular event” like a heart attack within five years of the analyzed eye scan. That’s just a couple of percentage points lower than the accuracy of common current methods that involve blood tests.

“Our results indicate that the application of deep learning to retinal fundus images alone can be used to predict multiple cardiovascular risk factors, including age, gender, and [blood pressure],” wrote the study authors. “That these risk factors are core components used in multiple cardiovascular risk calculators indicates that our model can potentially predict cardiovascular risk directly.”

Still, plenty of more testing will need to be done before Verily can move the algorithm into a clinical setting.

Read on for the day’s news.


The "organs-on-chips" startup is teaming up with Roche, Takeda. Boston-based Emulate, a biotech striving to make "organs-on-chips" that, well, emulate living human cells, has struck big-name deals with pharmaceutical giants Roche and Takeda, as well as the renowned Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. Emulate's tech could theoretically be used in drug development (and hence the company's existing partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and Merck). (Boston Business Journal)


Merck snatches up Viralytics to expand cancer ambitions. Drug maker Merck will acquire Australia's Viralytics Ltd. in a $400 million buyout to further boost its cancer immunotherapy portfolio. Viralytics is a so-called "oncolytic virus" specialist—i.e., it's working on modified viruses that specifically infects and kills cancer cells. And its lead product could potentially make a good complement to Merck's flagship immuno-oncology drug Keytruda. (BioPharma Dive)


Mayo Clinic CEO to step down after nearly a decade. Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy will retire at the end of 2018, marking the end of a nearly decade-long era for the renowned medical center's chief. But, as Noseworthy himself notes, Mayo Clinic believes in a "rotational" leadership model where the chief executive role switches hands every seven to 10 years. Noseworthy's retirement comes after former Cleveland Clinic CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove stepped down at the beginning of this year. (Modern Healthcare)


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