BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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ORLANDO, Florida — While some incredible breakthroughs have come from the traditional way of fighting cardiovascular disease, it remains the No. 1 killer of Americans. So why not shake things up?

Google Life Sciences Chief Executive Andy Conrad suggested a radical new approach to American Heart Association Chief Executive Nancy Brown during a meeting in June.

“Game on,” she said, setting in motion a series of events that led to a major announcement Sunday at the opening of the AHA’s flagship event, Scientific Sessions.

AHA and Google Life Sciences are investing $50 million over roughly five years to create a single team of specialists from a variety of fields. Together, the team will aim to understand, reverse and prevent coronary heart disease.

The money — split evenly between the organizations — is only a start, as leaders from both sides are committed to providing any other resources to support this landmark project introduced as “1 Team, 1 Vision, $50,000,000.”

“We intend to really change the way cardiovascular research is conducted,” Brown said.

Cardiovascular diseases claim about 17.5 million lives per year. Coronary heart disease — the focus of this effort — is among the most brutal, accounting for 7 million of those deaths.

Yet experts believe there’s a way to reverse it — to get rid of the buildup of plaque that can block blood from reaching the heart, which can cause a heart attack.

If finding such an elusive answer seems ambitious and perhaps a bit outrageous that’s part of the plan.

“We are trying to do something disruptive here,” said Dr. Robert Harrington, AHA board member and chair of the Department of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

And they’ll be doing it in a wholly new way.

For instance, the entire project will be in the hands of a single leader. That person is far from pre-determined.

With a laugh, Conrad said the screening process began with the announcement that the job exists. He wants proposals that can fit on a single piece of paper.

The single most important requirement is a creative vision.

“It could be a teenager in Wisconsin who has a brilliant idea,” Conrad said. “The best idea should triumph.

Applications for the position will be available in January.

“We go in without bias,” he added. “If we knew what the best answer was, we would be doing it. But we don’t. So the thing is to ask people to contribute ideas and wise people will review them and act upon them.”

Big expectations are inevitable considering the price tag and the reputation of the organizations behind this project. Conrad encouraged such hype, adding to it by recommending the use of words like “cure” and “prevention.”

“The only thing we can promise is that we’ll try harder and we’ll try to do something bigger,” he said. “I’m pretty confident that someday we will have a huge impact on preventing coronary heart disease. … We just have to try.”

The accepted approach to fighting heart disease has been through incremental projects, small steps that can hopefully combine to make big strides. Meanwhile, this announcement was compared to putting humans on the moon.

“We are really trying to make this an aspirational goal, knowing full well that we are not likely to get there all the way, but we hope that we’ll get there much further along the way than if we conducted business as usual,” said Dr. Joseph Loscalzo, physician-in-chief at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Hersey Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Things will ramp up early in 2016, with a Joint Leadership Group appointing the leader.

The leader will be tasked with putting together an overall plan, which includes assembling a team of researchers, engineers, scientists and other specialists.

“While this is an AHA-Google Life Sciences collaboration, we’re really here to support (the team leader’s) vision,” said Jessica Mega, chief science officer of Google Life Sciences. “It’s really betting on someone to try to make a difference and to give them all of the support that they need.”

The big budget should help. Conrad said the $50 million should help ease many of the obstacles that snag other projects, such as leaders pausing to write grants for additional funding or losing staffers to more stable jobs.

“We want to remove that barrier so only the quality of the idea is the thing that’s promoted,” he said.

One more thing about the money: this initial investment may only be a start.

“That’s not ultimately what it’s going to take to solve this problem, but it’s a great catalyst,” Harrington said.

“Hopefully,” Conrad added, “it inspires everyone else to chip in — maybe wrestles the government into doing something more, maybe wrestles other governments or other funding institutions to add to it.”

This will be the most heavily funded project in the AHA’s 91-year-history, which is significant considering the organization already is the largest funder of cardiovascular research in the United States outside the federal government. AHA has invested more than $3.9 billion in research, including upwards of $100 million annually since 1996.

Brown emphasized that the organization’s $25 million share comes on top of all its existing commitments. This required approval from the AHA Board of Directors, and it came quickly as leaders recognized this as a special opportunity.

“From an AHA Board perspective, we’re very, very excited to see this launched,” Harrington said.

Technology will certainly play a large role, which plays to the strengths of Google Life Sciences.

Conrad called it “a massive undertaking (that) will jumpstart a cross-pollination of technology and science.”

He offered this intriguing result: it “may help identify people who are at risk and get them the right treatment before something devastating happens.”

Google Life Sciences is the arm of the company now known as Alphabet that’s focused on helping move health care from reactive to proactive. As part of a publicly traded company, it’s fair to wonder about the economic aspect of this.

“This has no profit motive,” Conrad said. “It doesn’t have to make money. It probably won’t. Hopefully it will help and inspire people to join in to say let’s join in and see if we can finally do it. We’ll see.”

Photo by Todd Buchanan