PureTech startup, MIT to analyze 'vocal biomarkers'

Life sciences R&D company PureTech has kept mum on Sonde Health, a company working on a voice-based platform for assessing patient health. But it announced Tuesday that the startup has struck a deal with MIT's Lincoln Lab to license its audio analysis tech that will help Sonde develop its diagnostic tool.

The technology can analyze brief voice samples by detecting subtle changes in the acoustic characteristics of a speaker's voice, PureTech said in a statement. It uses an analysis of nonlinguistic vocal characteristics--changes in pitch, hoarseness or breathiness, for example--to establish objective "vocal biomarkers" that could indicate changes in health or disease status. Sonde aims to apply the technology to mental health conditions, such as depression, as well as to physical conditions, such as respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

Speech requires the coordination of "multiple neural circuits in the brain, precise control of the respiratory system, and carefully timed and coordinated activation of the musculoskeletal system elements that control articulation along the entire vocal tract," the company said in the statement. Anything that disrupts one or more of these processes will produce nonlinguistic changes in the voice, or "vocal biomarkers," that are consistent across individuals.

"This would be particularly useful in conditions that are chronically underdiagnosed, like perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum depression, and in other mental health and central nervous system disorders where there is a lack of objective and reliable screening and monitoring technologies," said Aimee Danielson, director of the Women's Mental Health Program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

Sonde's first-generation products will include software that can run on mobile devices, Jim Harper, Sonde Health's co-founder and COO, told FierceMedicalDevices. It will collect speech samples from users reading a passage or responding to predetermined prompts to avoid including personal information in the samples. As Sonde develops the tech, Harper envisions the ability to extract nonlinguistic features when someone is talking so there will no longer be a need to record speech.

The tech has undergone pilot studies that showed its ability to detect and objectively measure symptoms in various conditions, including mild traumatic brain injury, concussion, depression and Parkinson's disease, according to the statement. Sonde is pursuing these indications aggressively and will choose the best-performing ones to commercialize. However, it intends to study physical conditions as well, since speech can be a "window" into musculoskeletal and respiratory function in addition to brain function, Harper said.

PureTech's founders include Daphne Zohar, biotech entrepreneur Robert Langer and John LaMattina, a former Pfizer ($PFE) R&D chief. Its other companies include Gelesis, which makes a weight-loss pill that swells in the stomach, and Alivio, which focuses on using a hydrogel to treat chronic and acute inflammation.

- here's the release