The Pediatric Promise of Curie Dx
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Welcome to Molecular Ideas and thank you for sharing your time with us. Today, we explore how Curie Dx is creating easy-to-use, at-home diagnostics to help parents manage some of the most common childhood illnesses.
There few things are more startling than the little tug on your sleeve in the middle of the night and hearing the following whispered in your ear: “Mommy, Daddy, I don’t feel so good.” Or just lots of crying.
I know this because I was a very difficult child. While many kids have at least strep throats or ear infections once or twice in their lives, I struggled with acute, recurrent ear infections throughout my childhood. This led to weekly, albeit impromptu conversations with doctors. This meant that my parents had to rebalance work, school, and childcare – all before they got an answer to the all-important question: ‘Is it serious?’
Just a brief run-down of her credentials leaves me winded: she is the Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine Digital Health Innovation, as well as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. On top of that, she is a mother of two and building her own company with Marie Curie’s legacy in mind.
Simply put, Curie Dx is a software-based pediatric diagnostic company aiming to empower parents with answers to the all-important questions they face when their kids aren’t feeling well:
a) What does my child have?
b) Do I need to take them to the doctor for a formal diagnosis and prescription?
c) Will I need to take off work? What about school and childcare?
Their platform uses proprietary algorithms and machine learning to enable smart-phone cameras (or easily available phone accessories) to diagnose strep throat. By taking a picture of the problem, you can find whether or not your child has strep with astonishing accuracy. Other common conditions, such as ear infections (otitis media) are in development as well.
Dr. Canares’ research in digital medicine innovation at Johns Hopkins has built a solid medical foundation for her company. Her work draws from experience treating and working with thousands of children and their parents to understand how various conditions manifest. From there, she works to align those medical insights to machine learning.
“One of the key barriers many digital health companies face is that you need a diverse array of images that you can definitively link to outcomes.” says Canares. “You’re not going to get a reliable tool by training your algorithms on what you can find on Google Images.”
This is especially important when you consider the importance of accuracy. Unfortunately, research has shown that hubris amongst non-specialist pediatricians contributes to significant and frequent misdiagnosis of common bacterial infections like strep throat. If an infection is missed and persists, there are more appointments that force parents to juggle work, school, and childcare. Oh, and there’s still a very sick, unhappy child. While appointments and prescriptions directly cost families approximately $331 per year, further analyses show that indirect costs (including time off from work) can eclipse $1650 annually.
By contrast, machine learning has been used as part of the standard of care in radiology and dermatology for the last decade to identify tumors and other malignancies. While Curie Dx’s offerings would not necessarily replace a visit to the pediatrician, they can help parents get a better idea of what they’re up against in the moment.
I asked Dr. Canares if she would consider developing diagnostic devices that would leverage her proprietary algorithms. At the moment, she’s thinking of staying in the digital medicine space.
“We actually got to building a beautiful prototype of a device that parents could easily use in the home to diagnose their kids and interface with the doctor’s records. But, after consulting with advisors, we found the cost became prohibitive and the FDA regulatory timeline for devices would present a much longer path to market.”
It’s not surprising. A general guidance is that medical devices end up costing around ten times the cost of materials needed to produce them due to the cost of clinical and regulatory validation. That’s typically on the scale of several million dollars to commercialize a prototype at scale for widespread distribution. While digital health is an evolving field, pursuing this path to market increases the chance that Curie Dx’s work will in the hands – and on the phones – of parents sooner.
I once heard that being an entrepreneur in the life sciences is like playing the world’s most challenging video game in ‘expert’ mode. Beyond the technically-challenging nature of the products, founders face the nebulous gambit of R&D, steep regulatory hurdles, and astronomical costs. This process often self-selects for life science entrepreneurs who have specialized training in medicine, basic research, or business. One of the many things I admire about Dr. Canares is that she has all of these in spades – and for her, it’s still not enough.
“If I want to lead teams of people who are working on the technical elements of my products, I need to be able to speak their language, not just be conversant.” she says. While Dr. Canares does not have the formal background in computer science needed to build the machine learning algorithms herself, that hasn’t stopped her from learning. While pursuing a degree in coding is out for the moment, she’s leveraging a ‘Community Masterclass’ from a variety of mentors on women-focused entrepreneur groups like Elpha. She’s also leaning on the experience of mentors from Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures and FastForward University to constantly pressure-test her business model.
“Above all, you need to earn [credibility with] your technical lead; you can still do some of the groundwork, even if you don’t have a technical background like wireframing and educating oneself.”
What I admire about Dr. Canares is her drive, her humility, and her ability to balance or align these diverse responsibilities. She attributes her ability to get things done to her training as an emergency pediatrician. You never know who is going to walk in or what state they’re going to be in.
That said, her role as a mother of two young children compliments her work as an entrepreneur and emergency pediatrician. When consulting parents or designing her products, she does so with a unique form of empathy.
“I understand what the parental experience is like when a child is sick from both sides. I'm designing for a population that I understand well. When I make certain design decisions to add or subtract a feature, I'm designing for someone whom I identify with very closely.”
This empathy enables her to provide what every parent craves in that moment when they realize their child is sick – information. Curie Dx allows parents to get an accurate read on what their child is battling quickly by digitally visualizing it.
This led me to ask Dr. Canares about the connection between the vision for her company and its namesake. As you may know, Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize (and won them twice) for her groundbreaking work in radioactivity. Despite the perverse stereotypes of the era, she shattered the glass ceiling around women being able to contribute to the sciences. While she had to use her husband’s credentials, her work contributed to the first portable X-rays in World War II.
At its core, Curie Dx is about visualizing what cannot always be clearly seen. Dr. Canares has used techniques from her predecessor’s sister field – machine learning in radiology – to continue Marie Curie’s legacy. She fulfills the promise of her company’s namesake by shattering hubris with empathy and data.
You can learn more about Curie Dx here.
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