New device can diagnose concussions using AI
For a long time after Mary Smith hit her head, she was not able to function. Test after test came back normal, so her doctors ruled out the concussion, but she knew something was wrong. Finally, when she took a test with a novel EyeBOX device, recently approved by the FDA, she learned she indeed had been dealing with the aftermath of a concussion.
“I felt like even my husband and doctors thought I was faking it or crazy,” recalls Smith, who preferred not to disclose her real name. “When I took the EyeBOX test it showed that my eyes were not moving together and my BOX score was abnormal.” To her diagnosticians, scientists at the Minneapolis-based company Oculogica who developed the EyeBOX, these markers were concussion signs. “I cried knowing that finally someone could figure out what was wrong with me and help me get better,” she says.
Concussion affects around 42 million people worldwide. While it’s increasingly common in the news because of sports injuries, anything that causes damage to the head, from a fall to a car accident, can result in a concussion. The sudden blow or jolt can disrupt the normal way the brain works. In the immediate aftermath, people may suffer from headaches, lose consciousness and experience dizziness, confusion and vomiting. Some recover but others have side effects that can last for years, particularly affecting memory and concentration.
There is no simple standard-of-care test to confirm a concussion or rule it out. Neither do they appear on MRI and CT scans. Instead, medical professionals use more indirect approaches that test symptoms of concussions, such as assessments of patients’ learning and memory skills, ability to concentrate and problem solving. They also look at balance and coordination. Most tests are in the form of questionnaires or symptom checklists. Consequently, they have limitations, can be biased and may miss a concussion or produce a false positive. Some people suspected of having a concussion may ordinarily have difficulties with literary and problem-solving tests because of language challenges or education levels.
Another problem with current tests is that patients, particularly soldiers who want to return to combat and athletes who would like to keep competing, could try and hide their symptoms to avoid being diagnosed with a brain injury. Trauma physicians who work with concussion patients have the need for a tool that is more objective and consistent.
“This type of assessment doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation. You can’t game this.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
“The importance of having an objective measurement tool for the diagnosis of concussion is of great importance,” says Douglas Powell, associate professor of biomechanics at the University of Memphis, with research interests in sports injury and concussion. “While there are a number of promising systems or metrics, we have yet to develop a system that is portable, accessible and objective for use on the sideline and in the clinic. The EyeBOX may be able to address these issues, though time will be the ultimate test of performance.”
The EyeBOX as a window inside the brain
Using eye movements to diagnose a concussion has emerged as a promising technique since around 2010. Oculogica combined eye movements with AI to develop the EyeBOX to develop an unbiased objective diagnostic tool.
“What’s so great about this type of assessment is it doesn’t rely on the patient's education level, willingness to follow instructions or cooperation,” says Uzma Samadani, a neurosurgeon and brain injury researcher at the University of Minnesota, who founded Oculogica. “You can’t game this. It assesses functions that are prompted by your brain.”
In 2010, Samadani was working on a clinical trial to improve the outcome of brain injuries. The team needed some way to measure if seriously brain injured patients were improving. One thing patients could do was watch TV. So Samadani designed and patented an AI-based algorithm that tracks the relationship between eye movement and concussion.
The EyeBOX test requires patients to watch movie or music clips for 220 seconds. An eye tracking camera records subconscious eye movements, tracking eye positions 500 times per seconds as patients watch the video. It collects over 100,000 data points. The device then uses AI to assess whether there’s any disruptions from the normal way the eyes move.
Cranial nerves are responsible for transmitting information between the brain and the body. Many are involved in eye movement. Pressure caused by a concussion can affect how these nerves work. So tracking how the eyes move can indicate if there’s anything wrong with the cranial nerves and where the problem lies.
If someone is healthy, their eyes should be able to focus on an object, follow movement and both eyes should be coordinated with each other. The EyeBox can detect abnormalities. For example, if a patient’s eyes are coordinated but they are not moving as they should, that indicates issues in the central brain stem, whilst only one eye moving abnormally suggests that a particular nerve section is affected.
Uzma Samadani with the EyeBOX device
“The EyeBOX is a monitor for cranial nerves,” says Samadani. “Essentially it’s a form of digital neurological exam. “Several other eye-tracking techniques already exist, but they rely on subjective self-reported symptoms. Many also require a baseline, a measure of how patients reacted when they were healthy, which often isn’t available.
VOMS (Vestibular Ocular Motor Screen) is one of the most accurate diagnostic tests used in clinics in combination with other tests, but it is subjective. It involves a therapist getting patients to move their head or eyes as they focus or follow a particular object. Patients then report their symptoms.
The King-Devick test measures how fast patients can read numbers and compares it to a baseline. Since it is mainly used for athletes, the initial test is completed before the season starts. But participants can manipulate it. It also cannot be used in emergency rooms because the majority of patients wouldn’t have prior baseline tests.
Unlike these tests, EyeBOX doesn’t use a baseline and is objective because it doesn’t rely on patients’ answers. “It shows great promise,” says Thomas Wilcockson, a senior lecturer of psychology in Loughborough University, who is an expert in using eye tracking techniques in neurological disorders. “Baseline testing of eye movements is not always possible. Alternative measures of concussion currently in development, including work with VR headsets, seem to currently require it. Therefore the EyeBOX may have an advantage.”
A technology that’s still evolving
In their last clinical trial, Oculogica used the EyeBOX to test 46 patients who had concussion and 236 patients who did not. The sensitivity of the EyeBOX, or the probability of it correctly identifying the patient’s concussion, was 80.4 percent. Meanwhile, the test accurately ruled out a concussion in 66.1 percent of cases. This is known as its specificity score.
While the team is working on improving the numbers, experts who treat concussion patients find the device promising. “I strongly support their use of eye tracking for diagnostic decision making,” says Douglas Powell. “But for diagnostic tests, we would prefer at least one of the sensitivity or specificity values to be greater than 90 percent. Powell compares EyeBOX with the Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test, which has sensitivity and specificity values of 73 and 78 percent, respectively. The VOMS also has shown greater accuracy than the EyeBOX, at least for now. Still, EyeBOX is competitive with the best diagnostic testing available for concussion and Powell hopes that its detection prowess will improve. “I anticipate that the algorithms being used by Oculogica will be under continuous revision and expect the results will improve within the next several years.”
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury. People of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white.” -- Uzma Samadani, founder of Oculogica
Powell thinks the EyeBOX could be an important complement to other concussion assessments.
“The Oculogica product is a viable diagnostic tool that supports clinical decision making. However, concussion is an injury that can present with a wide array of symptoms, and the use of technology such as the Oculogica should always be a supplement to patient interaction.”
Ioannis Mavroudis, a consultant neurologist at Leeds Teaching Hospital, agrees that the EyeBOX has promise, but cautions that concussions are too complex to rely on the device alone. For example, not all concussions affect how eyes move. “I believe that it can definitely help, however not all concussions show changes in eye movements. I believe that if this could be combined with a cognitive assessment the results would be impressive.”
The Oculogica team submitted their clinical data for FDA approval and received it in 2018. Now, they’re working to bring the test to the commercial market and using the device clinically to help diagnose concussions for clients. They also want to look at other areas of brain health in the next few years. Samadani believes that the EyeBOX could possibly be used to detect diseases like multiple sclerosis or other neurological conditions. “It’s a completely new way of figuring out what someone’s neurological exam is and we’re only beginning to realize the potential,” says Samadani.
One of Samadani’s biggest aspirations is to help reduce inequalities in healthcare because of skin color and other factors like money or language barriers. From that perspective, the EyeBOX’s greatest potential could be in emergency rooms. It can help diagnose concussions in addition to the questionnaires, assessments and symptom checklists, currently used in the emergency departments. Unlike these more subjective tests, EyeBOX can produce an objective analysis of brain injury through AI when patients are admitted and assessed, unrelated to their socioeconomic status, education, or language abilities. Studies suggest that there are racial disparities in how patients with brain injuries are treated, such as how quickly they're assessed and get a treatment plan.
“The color of your skin can have a huge impact in how quickly you are triaged and managed for brain injury,” says Samadani. “As a result of that, people of color have significantly worse outcomes after traumatic brain injury than people who are white. The EyeBOX has the potential to reduce inequalities,” she explains.
“If you had a digital neurological tool that you could screen and triage patients on admission to the emergency department you would potentially be able to make sure that everybody got the same standard of care,” says Samadani. “My goal is to change the way brain injury is diagnosed and defined.”
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.