Sharon Moalem, MD, PhD is an author and geneticist who will participate in “[email protected] Medicine” next month. The event is a healthcare-themed hackathon at MIT that will see developers coming together with medical professionals to build s smartphone app that can be used to treat patients by identifying predispositions to certain diseases based on facial structure. An explanatory portion of the press release:
The hackathon is the final push that will follow more than seven years of research and investments by Dr. Moalem to develop an inexpensive facial recognition tool for genetic and congenital disorders by leveraging technology developed for the security industry. This disruptive technology may provide a way to help physicians screen for rare genetic conditions that would otherwise be missed.
“Right now the tool does only relative facial comparisons,” Moalem explains. “I know it can do so much more and this hackathon will be what we need to take it to the next level — and ideally, arm doctors with crucial knowledge to help patients.”
Dr. Moalem filled us in on more details via email.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What is the idea behind your app?
SHARON MOALEM: 40 million Americans are thought to be affected by a rare disorder and it can take an average of 7 years to get to a diagnosis, with 2-3 misdiagnoses along the way. But it doesn’t have to, because there are tell-tale signs for many of them that are found in the face and hands of those affected. Like the fingerprints found on the tips of our fingers, we all have features or differences that makes our facial landscapes unique. And many of these facial clues are signposts that can be used for the diagnosis of genetic disease. But making that diagnosis can be very difficult.
So the idea behind my app is to [simplify] facial recognition technology [and] minimize the amount of time it takes for physicians to make a diagnosis.
BI: What’s your background? What brought you to the point of developing this app?
SM: I’m a physician and scientist with a strong entrepreneurial streak, who has founded two biotech [companies]. I have 20 patents as well for my inventions related to healthcare, but I really wanted to try and tackle this problem of diagnosis by developing a tool that would be free and easy to use for healthcare workers. Because when you can make a diagnosis in a family you may discover other affected relatives as well.
We know that for many of these conditions — [such as] Gorlin syndrome where [facial clues can indicate] a predisposition to cancer — the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Through no fault of their own, many physicians just lack the training when it comes to diagnosing genetic conditions. Watching many of these families suffer through a diagnostic odyssey motivated me to develop a disruptive technology that could potentially make a considerable impact in the lives of millions of people.
BI: So this thing can tell me what I’ll die from based on what I look like?
SM: No, but I can tell you if you mother drank while she was pregnant with you.
BI: Is this stirring up any sort of controversy? Do you have naysayers?
SM: No one thought we’d be able to develop an app that can capture facial landmarks using a smartphone. Now they wish they had bought in earlier.
Here’s a screenshot from Dr. Moalem’s current build of the app.