When Donna Tuttle experienced the telltale signs of a heart attack – shortness of breath, tightening in her chest, extreme fatigue – she chewed two baby aspirins and took a nap. As a 48-year-old mother of four who had always prioritized exercise and nutrition, Tuttle never guessed heart disease.

Two days later, Tuttle and her husband went for a leisurely walk through their neighborhood. She could barely make it home. This time, Tuttle went to the emergency room, where a CT scan revealed that one of her left coronary arteries was 99 percent blocked.

“Even the cardiologist was shocked,” she says. “If I hadn’t come in, this would have caused a massive heart attack or instant death.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12 percent of Americans are diagnosed with heart disease – a condition that results in nearly one in four deaths. Like Tuttle, most don’t know they’re at risk until they experience a heart attack.

But what if you could see into the future? UNCG’s Dr. Joseph Starobin, associate professor of nanoscience, has developed an algorithm that brings the hidden indicators of heart disease to light.

By analyzing a heart’s electrical activity – the information you get from an electrocardiogram (ECG) – and looking specifically at how long it takes for the heart to contract and then recover from contracting, Starobin’s algorithm can pinpoint a person’s “optimum heart stability.” As long as their heart is performing in that range, they’re not at risk for heart disease.

Dr. Joseph Starobin and Dr. Jarrett Lancaster looking at computer screen

Dr. Joseph Starobin (left) and Dr. Jarrett Lancaster (right) review results of data processing using their algorithm.

“It is possible that many people could avoid heart disease entirely if they could recognize the warning signs,” says Starobin.

Now, he and his research team are working to develop a wearable crystal ball, one that predicts heart disease long before a heart attack.

Picture any one of the many bracelet-type activity trackers currently on the market that provide personal stats ranging from daily steps to nightly sleep quality, says Dr. Jarrett Lancaster, a postdoctoral researcher in Starobin’s lab. Now imagine if this tracker could know your optimum heart stability and could indicate when you should change your behavior to keep your heart healthy.

“Devices on the market can already show your heart rate,” Lancaster explains. “But alone, your heart rate doesn’t tell you when you’ve reached thresholds that would indicate you’re at risk for heart disease.”

It took years for Starobin to develop a groundbreaking algorithm with the potential to save lives. But connecting with a company that shares a scientist’s vision – and knows how to bring new technologies to market – takes more than time. In the case of Starobin and Lancaster, the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program provided that bridge between idea and product.

Starobin and Lancaster connected with Monebo, a software company whose technology can intercept the heart’s raw electronic signal and turn it into a clean, readable format. They also partnered with Rhythm Diagnostic Systems, a company with the potential to take Monebo’s data, run it through the algorithm, and display it on the wearable device.

For Tuttle, this technology can’t come fast enough.

“Any tool I have to give me an indication of how things are going is helpful,” she says.

With his new partners, Starobin believes his dreams for the algorithm will become a reality.

“I’ve worked years to develop this algorithm. But before, there was no way to marry all this knowledge with any particular device. Now, it’s all possible.”

 

This post was adapted from a UNCG Research Magazine story written by Robin Sutton Anders. To read the full story and more, click here.

Photography by Mike Dickens