Tel Aviv Skinhack Unites Novartis With IBM to Fight Skin Diseases

Three-day hackathon for skin diseases places spotlight on using technology to help manage psoriasis and melanoma – and on improving the quality of life for patients.

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Could relief for the heartbreak of psoriasis arise from a meeting of minds at the Peres Center of Peace this week? Maybe.

Skin diseases can be a scourge. They seldom kill but don't go away, either. For all mankind's technological hubris, there are still no cures for cancer, the common cold – or eczema. And never mind the heartbreak of psoriasis.

But if two minds are better than one, how about dozens? Thus Skinhack, an event sponsored by drug company Novartis and supported by computing giant IBM, where researchers and engineers and geeks from a host of industries and disciplines are meeting this week to brainstorm innovative ways to manage skin disease and improve the quality of life for patients.

"About 120 people have registered, I think," Laurence Ainouz, head of Novartis' global Digital Acceleration Lab, told Haaretz. Happily, the registrants – about half of whom are Israeli and half coming from abroad, she estimates – come from the wide range the organizers hoped for: technology, medicine, engineering - and even patients. "A lot of people told us they are coming because they have patients in their family. This disease impacts their life," Ainouz said.

"Skinhack" borrowed its monicker from "hackathon," also known as a hackfest or codefest, the latest wrinkle in innovation. Hackfests are events where computer programmers and software and hardware developers collaborate with others tangential to their field – for instance graphic and interface designers, and project managers – on specific projects, in competition with other teams. The idea is that the group mind, watered by competitive juices, will result in innovative solutions that isolated people slaving in basements wouldn't come up with.

Hacking for health?

Novartis and IBM began collaborating to bring the concept of "hackathons" to healthcare this year. Their first collaboration was BreatheHackathon, which took place simultaneously in three locations - England, Massachusetts and Israel. Skinhack is the second and is taking place Wednesday to Friday at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv this week, courtesy of Novartis, supported by IBM and TEDMED (a self-described "global community dedicated to unlocking imagination in service of health and medicine").

Novartis' involvement is clear. It is a drug company that makes medicines for skin conditions, among other things, including for eczema. As for IBM, "The CEO of IBM announced that healthcare is our moon shot," quips Michal Rosen-Zvi, director of health informatics at IBM Haifa. Furthering that aim was, for instance, the billion-dollar acquisition of the medical imaging company Merge Health this August, which it will be merging with its cognitive supercomputing entity, Watson.

Watson, actually a family of algorithms with a vast range of potential uses, can learn and communicate in human language.  In 2011 the computer appeared on the American television trivia show Jeopardy, where it trounced former champions in what PC World dubbed "a historic match of man versus machine."

The supercomputer has capabilities beyond embarrassing trivia enthusiasts, says IBM spokeswoman Rachel Yaakobi, noting work done at IBM Haifa using Watson for medical applications. For example, take radiological breast cancer scans. Watson can take data from all over the world and analyze it, looking for similar cases to a given scan result, and see how they were diagnosed, for instance, she says.

The three-day Skinhack meet is closed to the general public so the brains can get on with the job, fueled by Novartis' list, each other, adrenaline, coffee, and prizes. To spur the participants, Novartis came up with a list of 12 challenges that boil down to thinking of ways to improve diagnostics, scanning and monitoring technology, communication with the doctor (hmm – are engineers, even backed by Watson, the best ones to think of ways to achieve that) and improving care of psoriasis, specifically.

Eternally yours

Ainouz trained the spotlight on psoriasis chiefly because its impact can be so much worse than the disease itself, she explains. "It impacts the social life, the love life, the global economy. About three percent of the world's population suffers from psoriasis," she says. Yet in many cases, the disease isn't diagnosed at all, let alone treated properly.

Psoriasis is appropriate for Hackathon because although it has no cure, it can abate. But its treatment is very difficult to manage, explains Ainouz. The patient starts a regime; it takes time for the drug to take effect and for that effect to show; the disease can meanwhile "evolve", necessitating a different drug. All very difficult – and all exactly where better technology, in whose design Watson could help, could make all the difference to a sufferer's life, to his family, his employer and therefore, to the greater economy.

Another target to be addressed at Skinhack is melanoma.

"It's one of the most deadly cancers, and is also a place where technology can make difference. Melanoma can progress slowly or fast but you don't want to go to the doctor every day," Ainouz describes. "Imagine you could use your phone to check your melanoma every day. The phone could say whether the growth is not looking good and recommend you see the doctor, or say that it hasn't changed for three or four months, and looks good."

Among the guests is IBM's Rajib Chakravorty, an expert on analysis of skin scans and use of algorithms to analyze for cancer, flying in from Australia, says Rosen-Zvi.

Three prizes will be awarded at the closing ceremony on Friday, the big one being $5,000. Second prize is $3,000 and the third prize is $2,000. Asked about the amounts, Ainouz explains that Novartis didn't want people to join Skinhack for the money. It wanted people to come because they are dedicated to solving skincare problems. With symbolic prizes of the sort, it has probably achieved its aim.