Imagine if you could hold a stethoscope to your heart and find out with almost 90 percent accuracy if you were developing heart disease. Ph.D. student Valentina Dargam is working on a method to do just that.
Heart valves, like vocal cords, often make different noises based on how healthy they are. Dargam is trying to measure these signs of sickness in heart sounds.
Dargam is working on an algorithm that can differentiate the sounds of a healthy heart and one that is developing disease with high accuracy. She is currently testing the algorithm on mice and finding proof that it works, she says.
“The idea is that if you have a digital stethoscope and know where to place it, then detecting heart disease can come down to an algorithm,” Dargam says. “A good sound recording would be all a person needs."
After speaking with 100 health care professionals to confirm her research’s commercial potential, Dargam wants to make her test a reality. Her method could make diagnosing heart disease more practical for lower-income populations. For example, it can cost $1,000 or more for someone without insurance to get an echocardiogram and find out exactly what is wrong with their heart. It would help someone in that position to know if they really needed to get the test done, Dargam says. FIU has one patent and a pending application related to the technology.
In recognition of Dargam’s research potential, the Florida Heart Research Foundation recently named her the 2022 Early Career Stop Heart Disease Researcher of the Year. The award grants her $50,000 in research funding.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Dargam’s research stems from an idea brought to her by biomedical engineering professor Joshua Hutcheson. The FIU professor thought of the idea while talking with his wife, an opera singer, about how changes in someone’s vocal fold affect his or her voice.
“I was just struck by how much the vocal folds look like the aortic valve in the heart,” Hutcheson says. “It made me wonder if by picking up subtle changes in that sound, we could then diagnose heart disease earlier on. Valentina has taken the project and ran with it in ways that I couldn’t have imagined.”
Dargam says that for her test to become a commercial product, she will need to build a database of human heart sounds to inform her algorithm. That data will also have to include the fraction of irregular heart sounds that are harmless and not related to disease.
With funding from the Florida Heart Foundation, Dargam is ready to make her test a reality. StartUP FIU is helping her determine the best way to commercialize her research and showcase her innovative work at conferences.
“Not everyone can afford to get expensive diagnostics,” Dargam says. “I’m really into low-cost diagnostics so that people who don’t know they have heart disease can go get the advanced imaging or treatment that they need."