Microwave Imaging for Brain Stroke Detection and Monitoring using High Performance Computing in 94 seconds
“I’ve always been drawn to helping people and had a fascination with nature and how the body worked from an early age,” Barr said.
With a little help from her high school science teacher, Barr quickly achieved her lifelong dream, which then lead her to a revolutionary medical discovery that could change the way strokes are diagnosed and treated forever.
According to the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association’s 2017 heart disease and stroke statistics report, someone in the U.S. has a stroke about once every 40 seconds, accounting for one of every 20 deaths in the U.S. Cerebrovascular disease, or stroke, is the third leading cause of death in the nation and the fourth leading cause of death in West Virginia.
One way to detect if someone is having or has had a stroke is by using a visual examination technique called F.A.S.T., which stands for: F — Face Drooping; A — Arm Weakness; S — Speech Difficult; T — Time to call 911.
Barr, who today is a registered nurse, a Ph.D. and chief scientific officer of the biotech startup, Valtari Bio, said her “ah-ha” moment came nearly 10 years ago when she witnessed exactly how a misdiagnosed stroke can have tragic consequences.
“She had a complication from an undiagnosed aneurysm which causes a type of stroke, and she died right there in front of me,” Barr said of a patient. “It was terrible and, honestly, the first time I had ever experienced something so horrifying.”
After that, Barr’s vision was clear. The girl from a family of factory workers in Wheeling quickly pursued a better way to diagnose and treat stroke in a personalized and precise way.
Barr spent many years focused on making her discovery a reality.
“I lived, breathed and slept stroke diagnosis and brought that motivation to my postdoctoral studies and even into my faculty appointment at West Virginia University,” she said.
Barr’s pace, as she put it, was relentless. But that changed in February 2013.
“I was 12 weeks pregnant and developed a pulmonary embolism, lots of complications and almost died,” she said. “That set everything in perspective for me.”
Barr’s baby survived, but she learned an invaluable lesson.
“I was reminded that I wasn’t running a race; I was running a marathon and needed to take better care of myself and this vision I’ve been given,” she said.
In April 2016 Barr’s vision grew with the addition of Richard Giersch who joined Barr and Valerie M. Gionis to form Valtari Bio. The biotech start-up was spun out of the West Virginia University Stroke Center. Today it operates in the West Virginia University Health Sciences Innovation Center in Morgantown.
Valtari Bio is located on the WVU Hospitals campus within the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Center, and has access to a fully functional biomedical laboratory space with benches, casework and infrastructure.
“Our association and emergence from West Virginia University as a company provided us with a tremendous amount of support,” Giersch said. “Individuals within the state were excited about seeing a potential world-changing technology come out of West Virginia University.”
As CEO of Valtari Bio, Giersch works to keep Barr’s stroke diagnosis and treatment technology moving forward.
“It’s not simply plugging in another type of aspirin to cure a headache where there’s a crowded market,” he said. “This will completely change the way stroke is diagnosed and people are triaged for treatment and potentially recover.”
Giersch said the technology is currently in the clinical trial stages, but the challenge now is to convert the genomic profile taken from blood to a protein profile, which would speed up the process to less than 10 minutes.
“And in less than 10 minutes the machine would say, ‘this person is likely to have a stroke,’ or ‘this person has a very low likelihood of having a stroke,” he said.
Why the University of Cincinnati? Giersch said UC’s Stroke Center is a world leader when it comes to conducting clinical trial research around stroke.
“That’s the level of expertise they have developed,” he said. “Once we get all the data crunched and we close the next round of funding we’re going to launch clinical trials in up to seven sites across the county.”
The next big step is selecting the perfect enabling technology partner who will provide the handheld device that would actually analyze the drops of blood taken from a potential stroke victim.
“Our intellectual property is around the way to analyze that drop of blood and make a determination of a yes or no stroke,” he said. “It’s essentially the software that makes the hardware valuable.”
Right now, Geirsh and crew are speaking with a few different hardware providers about enabling their profile on their technology.
“We should have that nailed down before the end of summer,” he said.
But bringing Barr’s dream of translating all the science into a handheld point of care test to be used at a patient’s bedside is a costly and time consuming proposition.
“We have about three to five years until we think our product will be on the market,” Barr said.
The investment side continues to be a challenging component. West Virginia investors typically have a low comfort level investing in the biotech industry. Despite that, Giersch said most of the seed money that helped launch Valtari Bio came from Mountain State investors contributing approximately $5 million. Giersch said the total needed is about $25 million.
Regardless of the cost and time concerns, Barr remains confident her stroke test will soon be in small and large hospitals around the nation.
“I know that our test will not prevent all bad outcomes, but even if we save one life it will all be worth it,” Barr said. “I want to impact patient care and until we do so, it won’t really be a reality for me.”