Scientists, engineers and executives from Los Angeles-based bioscience companies and organizations painted a vivid and panoramic picture of how artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing the medical field, with much of that transformative energy taking place in Los Angeles County.
These observations highlighted a forum held at that hot-house of high-tech innovation, Google’s Spruce Goose Hanger.
Reviewing the field of innovators on the podium, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-sponsor of the event with Google, said: “AI and machine learning are playing key roles in accelerating the innovation and growth of our bioscience industry. With a boost from AI, I am confident that in the not too distant future LA County will be a world-recognized capital of bioscience.”
The LA bioscience industry currently hires an estimated 90,000 employees and supports the jobs of 100,000 others. In 2018, all sectors of the life sciences industry generated $42.5 billion of economic activity in the county. Also in 2018, the National Institutes of Health awarded a record-setting $1.1 billion in grants for bioscience research to LA County-based universities and organizations.
Inventiveness was on full display at the forum attended by 250 persons. Forum keynote speaker Philip Nelson, director of engineering at Google Accelerated Science, set the stage by reviewing several notable AI-assisted biomedical projects at Google.
These include an AI-assisted system for early detection of diabetic retinopathy, a condition that yearly blinds hundreds of thousands of people globally. Detected soon enough, this condition can be treated and blindness prevented. At present, diabetic retinopathy can only be reliably detected by highly-trained ophthalmologists. Google’s AI-assisted detection system can be operated by a clinician, a development that will dramatically increase the accessibility of treatment, Nelson said. Google is also exploring similar AI-assisted imaging technology to detect breast cancer more effectively than current techniques, Nelson related.
The forum also heard from Juan Espinosa, director of the West Coast Consortium for Technology & Innovation in Pediatrics. CTIP is centered at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and the University of Southern California (USC). Established in 2011, CTIP is a network of children’s hospitals, academic institutions, accelerators and incubators that promotes the commercialization and clinical use of pediatric medical device technology. In 2018 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration awarded CTIP a $6.6 million grant to support its work.
In 2018, CTIP awarded $235,000 in seed grants to six innovators developing new devices and technologies for young patients, Espinosa told the audience. The 2018 grant winners included a low-cost infant microbiome monitoring device for home or clinic use, a novel short arm exoskeleton to help treat orthopedic fractures, an improved sound-delivery vest for treating respiratory conditions and a virtual reality system for treating pediatric chronic pain.
Dina Lozofsky, a senior business director at the UCLA Technology Development Group, lifted the audience’s spirits by noting the 2019 third quarter report of the National Venture Capital Association showed funding of AI startups is off-the-charts. According to the Q3 data, 965 AI-related companies in the U.S. have raised $13.5 billion in venture capital through the first 9 months of this year. “Those are record-breaking numbers,” Lozofsky said.
Lozofsky also moderated a panel consisting of the CEOs of four LA-based bioscience companies. One of the panelists was Martha Lawrence, CEO and co-founder of Torrance-based AccendoWave. AccendoWave has developed a non-opioid system for managing pain and anxiety that consists of an electroencephalogram (EEG) headband, a Samsung tablet (computer) and AI-assisted software. The EEG headband measures a patient’s distress; the patient then dials up different programs on the tablet to alleviate that distress. These programs range from animated films to music from Bach or the Beatles. Lawrence said the system has been used to treat some 58,000 patients in hospitals in three states.
At the forum, Lawrence announced her company is now partnering with AT&T to market and support the AccendoWave system. Its use does not require a doctor’s prescription and it has proved to be particularly useful in dealing with the pain issues of young people, Lawrence said. AccendoWave’s chief technology officer demonstrated the company’s pain management system at the forum.
Other forum panelists were:
• Neural Analytics CEO Leo Petrossian. Petrossian talked about a recent agreement his company reached to conduct a feasibility study of its latest generation robotic system for measuring and tracking brain health of patients. The agreement is with the Ochsner Health System. Louisiana-based Ochsner owns, manages or is affiliated with 40 hospitals and 100 clinics. Neural Analytics’ device non-invasively measures a patient’s brain blood flow information to provide neurologists with critical information about the brain health of their patients. In 2017, Neural Analytics received a $10 million U.S. Department of Defense grant to develop a device for assessing combat-related traumatic brain injuries.
• Deep 6 AI CEO Wout Brusselaers. Brusselaers discussed how his company uses AI to scan tens of thousands of medical records to identify persons best-suited to participate in clinical drug trials. Now, Brusselaers explained pharmaceutical companies often take months to select clinical trial subjects and frequently pick the wrong ones. His technology, Brusselaers said, takes the guesswork and missteps out of this process, saving drug companies time and money.
• QuLab CEO Alireza Shabani. Shabani talked about his company’s development of the first integrated AI-based platform for small molecule drug design. This product will help revolutionize the discovery of new pharmaceutical products, Shabani predicted.
During his remarks, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas challenged the bioscience leaders to hire a diversified workforce. “As in the past, evolving economies have the potential to raise incomes and improve our quality of life,” Ridley-Thomas said. “But many have warned that this emerging economy will yield yet greater inequality, further widening the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots.”
Such a dire result does not need to happen, Ridley-Thomas said. The Supervisor observed that Los Angeles County is working to ensure the bioscience industry has access to an LA-based workforce that is diverse and highly-trained.
“The County recognizes the moral imperative of this mandate for equality and to that end we have funded and helped develop the Bio-Flex program,” Ridley-Thomas said. Bio-Flex, a first-in-the-nation apprenticeship training program, was launched in partnership with the South Bay Workforce Investment Board, Cal State Dominguez Hills, West LA College and the bioscience industry itself, including companies such as Bachem and Thermo Fisher Scientific, to prepare persons of color and the economically disadvantaged for jobs in the bioscience industry.
“We recently celebrated the first of what we expect will be many graduates of this program,” said the Supervisor.
The Board of Supervisors, under Ridley-Thomas’ leadership, has taken a number of steps to nurture LA’s bioscience industry. For example the County is negotiating with a nonprofit research institute to develop a biotech business park at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center campus; it has helped fund bioscience incubators at the Lundquist Institute and at California State University Los Angeles; it has approved the creation of “overlay zones” in almost a dozen locations across the county where bioscience commercial and industrial companies can co-exist free of the zoning restrictions that would otherwise make their clustering infeasible; and it has set up an investment fund, with $15 million of seed money, to provide affordable loans to small and medium-sized bioscience companies.
A more complete overview of the Board of Supervisors’ support for bioscience is outlined in an op-ed published recently in the Los Angeles Daily News and four of its sister newspapers.