Ask Gary Thompson what attracted his company, Medical Technologies International (MTI; Palm Desert, California), to license software developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL; Pasadena, California) and he’ll first give you the short answer: “Heart attack. Mine.”

Thompson, the CEO and chairman of MTI, was the first male in his family to reach age 50.

“I have a very strong family history of heart disease. Every male in my family — my dad, my grandfather, all my uncles, my great-grandfather — died of one event and no prior symptoms. It was a silent killer,” Thompson told Medical Device Daily. “Outwardly you’d say (my dad) was a picture of health and he wasn’t.”

In 1996 Thompson, a lifetime athlete and a marathon runner for more than 20 years, was all-too-aware of the “ticking time clock” — also known as his approaching 50th birthday.

That year he planned to run three marathons to celebrate the big milestone — the Los Angeles marathon, the Boston marathon, and the New York marathon.

Prior to the marathons Thompson took every non-invasive diagnostic test available, spending $5,000 out of his own pocket looking for any possible signs of heart disease. Every test indicated he was in great shape and nothing was wrong with his heart.

Two weeks later, 15 miles into the LA marathon, Thompson developed back pain. Trusting that the doctors who told him he was perfectly healthy knew what they were talking about, he continued to run with the back pain for another five miles. Then, at mile 20, he had a heart attack.

Obviously, Thompson survived his 1996 heart attack, but says he was “miffed” and that “modern medicine had definitely let me down.”

Soon after the incident, Thompson had lunch with David Baltimore, the then-president of California Institute of Technology (CalTech; Pasadena, California), which manages JPL for NASA, and in talking with him about his heart attack asked if there was anything better being developed to detect heart disease.

Baltimore told him about the ArterioVision software being developed at JPL but said that CalTech hadn’t yet figured out a way to turn the technology into a business.

The ArterioVision works with a standard carotid ultrasound machine that measures plaque and blood flow within the artery. When an ultrasound is used with the software, the test measures the thickness of the inner two layers of the carotid artery — the intima and media.

Arterial thickening provides the earliest evidence of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, the beginning stage of a disease process that leads to heart disease and stroke. Doctors can use this carotid intima media thickness (CIMT) measurement to calculate the age of the patient’s arteries, which does not always match the patient’s calendar age.

So in 1996, after being told about this new diagnostic test for heart disease, Thompson went to the lab and stood in line to take the test himself, making sure not to tell the technicians administering the test anything about his previous heart attack or family history of heart disease, and the test indicated that there was in fact a problem with his heart.

Keep in mind, Thompson said, “I had 12% body fat, I was tan and I didn’t look like I was dying of heart disease.”

But according to the test, he said, “my arteries were age 92 at 50.”

“I said ‘we’ve gotta get this into the hands of more physicians — families can be saved by it,” Thompson said.

That’s what led to the creation of MTI, which Thompson said he has privately funded himself for the past nine years, all the way through FDA approval in 2005. Now the company is ready to market and distribute the product throughout the country.

So that was the long answer to what attracted MTI to license ArterioVision from CalTech, Thompson told MDD.

“The other tests measure performance. Any kind of athletic training — and I’ve had a lifetime of it — you can override it,” Thompson said when asked what the difference is between this new assay and all the other tests he took prior to the LA marathon in 1996.

Thompson said the ArterioVision software is compatible with all standard carotid ultrasound machines and is designed to acquire images in a consistent way, making it less operator-dependent than most ultrasound machines.

“It’s not just a screening device — we help physicians detect heart disease and stroke with their existing ultrasound equipment,” Thompson said.

Ken Wolfenbarger, Innovative Partnerships Program manager at JPL, told MDD that the technology was originally developed to help NASA scientists better understand what was on the images that were being taken in space. For example, back in the 1960s, when NASA sent spacecraft out to explore the universe, it was difficult to see the mountains and valleys of a particular planet. Thus, NASA developed a way of converting the pixels into various shades of gray and then created an algorithm to stretch out the grayness and enhance the image. The same technique is now commonly used in programs such as Adobe Photoshop, he said, but “back then it was novel and enabling for us” to understand the image better.

And the same imaging problems occur with medical imaging, he noted, which is one reason the technology is now being distributed by MTI as a heart disease diagnostic test.

During the test, a patient lies on an examination table while a technician applies gel to the neck to image the carotid arteries, located on both sides of the neck near the skin’s surface. The technician uses an ultrasound machine while following a patented protocol to capture specific images of the carotid artery wall. Using the ArterioVision software, the physician generates a CIMT measurement and a report that identifies the patient’s risk profile when compared to people of the same gender and age, according to the company.

JPL’s Image Processing Laboratory was created in 1966 to receive and make sense of spacecraft imagery. In the lab, the NASA-invented Video Imaging Communication and Retrieval software has been used to process pictures from numerous space missions, including the Voyagers and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Periodic upgrades of the imaging software have enabled greater accuracy and improved knowledge of the solar system, and have laid the groundwork for understanding images of all kinds, according to NASA.

The ArterioVision test was developed with JPL’s Innovative Partnerships Program, designed to bring benefits of the space program to the public.

“It is exciting to see this NASA-funded technology grow in sophistication over the years and help in the battle against one of the nation’s leading health issues,” said Ken Wolfenbarger, Innovative Partnerships Program manager at JPL.

According to the American Heart Association (Denver) heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., while strokes are third, behind all forms of cancer.

But perhaps even more alarming is the statistic Thompson points to: In 40% of people who have heart disease death is the first symptom. In other words, they had heart disease and didn’t know it, he said.

“That was my dad, grandfather, uncles, great-grandfather and on and on and on,” Thompson said.

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