Neurotrack, the startup that took the health prize at this week’s SXSW startup accelerator in Austin, isn’t just a few months or a few years in the making. Elli Kaplan, the company’s CEO, said it’s built on research started 25 years ago.
That’s when neuroscientists at UC San Diego started the research that would lead to discoveries about how the brain is impacted by Alzheimer’s and possible methods of early detection. Over the years, that research led to multi-million-dollar grants and longitudinal studies and, ultimately, the recognition that it could become much more.
“They realized the impact outside the ivory tower and they brought me in,” Kaplan said. Last spring, the company incorporated and, after a summer at health tech accelerator Rock Health’s Boston program, it launched in October.
Building on work from neuroscientists Stuart Zola, Elizabeth Buffalo, Eugene Agichtein and Cecelia Manzanares (now at Emory University) and theories regarding short-term memory and recognition memory, Neurotrack says it can identify patients at risk for developing Alzheimer’s potentially 6 years before the onset of the condition.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s – and that number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050. But, Kaplan said, most are diagnosed at a late stage.
“It’s the same thing as what happened with breast cancer before they had the mammogram,” she said. “They’re diagnosing at the equivalent of stage 4, when there’s already irreparable damage.”
Through a computer-based program connected to an eye-tracking device, patients are monitored as they view pairs of images, some of which are novel and some of which are familiar. The program evaluates patients’ eye movement and the time spent looking at the familiar and novel images and then generates a score. Kaplan said that of those who have scored below 50 percent on the test, 100 percent have gone on to receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis within six years, while none of those scoring above 67 have converted Alzheimer’s.
Down the line, the company could sell to physicians (after receiving FDA approval), but Kaplan said the immediate plan is to sell to pharmaceutical companies, who can use the test to identify people for clinical trials and develop more effective treatment.
“One of the biggest issues with Alzheimer’s is that pharmaceutical companies haven’t been able to develop drugs because they can’t diagnose the condition early enough,” she said.
The company, which is based in Atlanta, has not yet raised funding from venture capitalists but is currently raising an insitutional round. Other interesting health startups that competed in the SXSW accelerator include Docphin, a Rock Health and Startup Health-backed site for healthcare professionals to access and share medical research, TechStars-backed Careport Health, which helps hospitals find appropriate after-care for patients and Care at Hand, another Rock Health company, a mobile system that helps non-clinical home care workers monitor and communicate the health of elderly patients.