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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 24, 2017

University of Iowa researcher paves way in artificial intelligence diagnoses

By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette | Oct 31, 2017

IOWA CITY — An Iowa City-based medical diagnostics company rooted in the University of Iowa research engine, founded by one of its faculty, and supported in part by its intellectual property resources, soon could make history.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration never before has cleared for front-line patient care an artificial intelligence-based diagnostic device like the one IDx has developed for diabetic retinopathy — a leading cause of preventable blindness.

“We would be the first,” according to UI professor, physician and scientist Michael Abramoff, who five years ago founded IDx, which has a larger mission to “transform the quality, accessibility and affordability of global health care through the automation of medical diagnosis and treatment.”

Since its founding, IDx officials have been working closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prove the technology is safe and effective for front-line patient care. Two months ago, the company wrapped clinical trials with 900 patients in hopes of receiving FDA approval early next year.

If approved, Abramoff said, the tool could preserve the vision of countless diabetes patients, save millions in health care costs, equip primary care providers with a relatively easy-to-use tool and pave the way for future technology like it.

“It’s a win for the person with diabetes, the patient, because it’s more affordable — more affordable than me definitely,” he said. “For primary care, it’s a great win because they can keep their patients under their management — they don’t have to refer to someone like me.”

On a national scale, this type of technology could serve as a solution.

“Health care is too expensive in the U.S., that’s why we’re all talking about it,” he said. “And so if it drives down the cost, it will really help solve a lot of problems.”

That research-to-potential-riches-and-revelation story exemplifies the importance of supporting science and the funding behind it. And it’s why Abramoff traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to brief congressional leaders on his work.

During the briefings — organized by the Science Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to sustainable federal investment in scientific research — Abramoff shared his personal story as an example of how university initiated research can benefit society and stimulate the economy.

He had been working as an ophthalmology resident 20 years ago in the Netherlands — treating patients with eye disease, including those who already had gone blind. When he asked one patient, whose disease had progressed to the point of permanent vision loss, why he hadn’t come sooner, the man said he had tried but couldn’t get an appointment.

On his drive home that night, Abramoff resolved, “There has to be a better way.”

He came to Iowa and — with his previous training in artificial intelligence and software development — began searching for a way to automate the process of screening diabetes patients for retinopathy. He found it, and it’s already being used overseas.

“In Europe about 45,000 people with diabetes a year are undergoing this,” he said. “And it’s rapidly growing, of course.”

IDx is continuing its research into other tools to address glaucoma and macular degeneration. But it needs resources, Abramoff said

“We need some reimbursement to make the company grow,” he said. “In addition to the people we currently have, we want to hire many more.”

The company and the research it produced received about $7 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, and it landed about $35 million in angel investments. The UI Research Foundation contributed resources toward supporting the faculty entrepreneurship, and it’s recouping those costs — and more — via royalties and an equity stake in the company.

Of the IDx patents, it has exclusively licensed 17 patent and patent applications from the University of Iowa — all in the field of medical imaging, machine learning and automated medical assessment.

Marie Kerbeshian, assistant vice president and executive director of the UI Research Foundation, confirmed UI has equity in IDx but couldn’t discuss details about royalties and revenue.

IDx spokesman Laura Shoemaker said as the company produces products based on patents, it will start to generate revenue and “the university will see a return by virtue of being an equity shareholder.”

Following his presentation on Capitol Hill, Abramoff said several lawmakers approached him asking how they could help. That left him encouraged.

“My hope is we become ground zero for AI in medicine,” he said.

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