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UI professor briefs Congress on how research helps the economy

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UI Professor Michael Abramoff briefed Congress on Oct. 25 on how scientific research can help boost the economy.

By Paige Schlichte
[email protected]

When many people think of Iowa, they think “agriculture” before they think “artificial intelligence diagnostics.”

Michael Abramoff, a University of Iowa professor of ophthalmology, engineering, and biomedical engineering who came to Iowa from the Netherlands, aims to change that with IDx, an Iowa-based company that develops artificial intelligence algorithms to identify diseases in medical images.

IDx, which stands for Eye Diagnostics or Iowa Diagnostics, was born from Abramoff’s research. Its first product, IDx-DR, uses artificial intelligence to detect diabetic retinopathy in images of patients’ retinas.

“Diabetes is leading cause of blindness in adults in the U.S. and around the world,” Abramoff said. “Diabetic retinopathy is almost entirely preventable if caught and treated early, but some people don’t notice the symptoms until it’s too late, and they don’t come to specialists like me.”

In a briefing on Oct. 25, Abramoff described to Congress how basic science research and funding can boost the economy, using his company as an example.

Abramoff said specialists can be hard to find, especially in rural places such as Iowa, where there are not many in the entire state, and the screening itself can be expensive. Therefore, the focus of his company is using artificial intelligence to make health care more productive and drive down costs. He said this artificial intelligence is more accurate than humans in detecting diabetic retinopathy.

“When you realize there’s a technology that can make health care better and cheaper, you want to bring it to your patients,” he said.

IDx-DR is currently in use in the European Union. Abramoff said it has not been cleared for use in the U.S. by the FDA yet, but it is currently undergoing a clinical trial at 10 primary-care clinics in several states to gain permission to use in the U.S. If cleared, it will be the first artificial-intelligence-based device that detects disease in the U.S.

“It’s really expensive for a company to try to get off the ground, especially in medicine, and so having academics push the boundaries and show what’s possible is really a necessary step before you try to bring some of these algorithms to market,” said Ryan Amelon, a UI biomedical engineering graduate and director of research and development at IDx.

Laura Shoemaker, a UI grad and marketing communications manager for IDx, attended the briefings with Abramoff. She said some of the discussion at the briefing involved what is known as the “valley of death,” the period of time between when a discovery is made and when it goes to market.

“There’s a period of time between the discovery of a new innovation that could really have a positive impact on patients’ lives — in IDx’s case, prevent them from going blind — and when it actually goes to market where the innovation might not get its feet off the ground,” Shoemaker said.

It was also exciting to see how far along IDx is compared to other companies, she said, and she is optimistic about the chances of going to market in the U.S.

“Hopefully, with the example that IDx is setting, people will realize artificial-intelligence-based companies can be done in Iowa,” Abramoff said. “I want to show you can do the most exciting work in the world right here. If Iowa can become a hub for artificial intelligence in medicine or diagnostics, that would be amazing.”

RELATED: AI-based cancer treatment platform helps UI doctors

 

 

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