Breakthrough tool predicts likelihood of stroke

The Team

Co-founder and COO Karina Gasbarrino and colleagues at digital health startup, PLAKK Inc.

The Challenge

How to better predict and prevent strokes

The Outcome

Plakk is currently working on two versions of its technology, one that will serve as a decision support tool for radiologists reading ultrasound images, and one that will be tailored for family physicians to use, particularly in rural and remote communities

Innovative technology puts harmful plaques under an ‘AI microscope,’ assigning risk scores to patients to help prevent strokes from happening

Karina Gasbarrino uses AI to tackle the second-leading cause of death and third-leading cause of disability worldwide – stroke. Her journey started more than a decade ago when she lost her grandfather to a sudden stroke. Since then, she has devoted her academic career to his memory, helping to advance early detection and diagnosis of harmful fatty deposits in the arteries of the neck. Rupturing of these plaques is the main cause of strokes. 

Gasbarrino is achieving her goal with a first-of-its-kind tool she developed, a cloud-based system called SonoPlaque™. The platform uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) and image analysis technologies to examine these fatty deposits more accurately. Now she’s advancing her innovative approach to stroke prevention through her digital health startup, PLAKK Inc., where she serves as co-founder and COO. 

Empowering clinicians 

Her company’s platform is set to revolutionize stroke prevention by allowing clinicians to accurately identify and characterize high-risk plaques using ultrasound images, applying deep learning to understand what those plaques are made of and measure key parameters that indicate high risk of stroke. Patients are assigned a stroke risk score to help determine if preventive surgery or treatment is required, similar to the way a high PSA level helps determine if intervention is required to treat prostate cancer. 

“Coming out of my PhD, I knew I wanted to have a major impact on patients’ lives and I felt the way I could do that was to start thinking about a tool that could be easily integrated into medical clinics,” says Gasbarrino. “Right now, stroke events are happening anytime, anywhere, and we just don’t know when or where that might be. We know plaques cause the majority of strokes, but we’re not screening for them.” Gasbarrino completed her PhD in Experimental Medicine at McGill University. 

How it works 

The problem with current diagnostic methods for stroke prevention is that treating physicians only consider one parameter: the level of artery blockage as shown on a patient’s neck ultrasound and reported by a radiologist. Yet research shows one parameter is insufficient to tell the exact risk of stroke, meaning some people are missed.  

SonoPlaque™ goes a step further by providing more information about the plaques themselves — such as the amount of inflammation, fat or calcification present — to help quantify the risk. Clinicians upload their patient’s ultrasound images to the cloud and the platform automatically assigns a stroke risk score, using the deep learning models developed by PLAKK to quickly analyze plaque parameters. If the stroke risk score is high, the plaques can be surgically removed or treated with confidence, proactively preventing stroke. 

Competitive advantage  

The company’s key differentiator from competing approaches is that it uses low-cost, safe ultrasound images. Other emerging technologies use CT or MRI imaging which expose patients to radiation and are more costly or not as widely available as ultrasound. “We’re also the only approach to apply precision medicine using AI and routine ultrasound images, and to assign an individual risk score,” says Gasbarrino. 

Plakk is currently working on two versions of its technology, one that will serve as a decision support tool for radiologists reading ultrasound images, and one that will be tailored for family physicians to use, particularly in rural and remote communities. This year it expects to get an early prototype evaluated by radiologists in the field as it works towards achieving Health Canada and FDA approvals. 

Mitacs’ Accelerate Entrepreneur program has helped Gasbarrino and other members of PLAKK’s R&D team advance the development process for their innovative system. 

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

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Mitacs Team
Mitacs Team

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