NEW ORLEANS – One of the first studies in the $75 million research project seeking to wipe out coronary heart disease will target perhaps the most basic human experience: Eating.

While generations of scientists have studied how the food people eat changes their bodies, it’s never been done like this group plans to do.

Participants in this study will use an app to take a picture of their plate before and after every meal. The images will go into a database that will be able to determine all sorts of crucial information. It’s a lot more sophisticated – and, perhaps, more accurate – than the old-school way of asking people to write down what they ate.

“We can work out how many calories were consumed, what trace elements were ingested, how that affects the bacteria in your bowel and more,” lead investigator Dr. Calum MacRae said. “All those things can be brought together through the power of image analysis technologies combined with rigorous databases of food composition. So you just put the picture in your app, and the app would do everything else.”

onebraveidealogoThis food study will be among the first four launched Jan. 1, when the project known as One Brave Idea officially begins.

Funded by $25 million each from the American Heart Association, Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, One Brave Idea is all about conducting science in a new way to try wiping out coronary heart disease. CHD is the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries that can lead to a heart attack. Of the 17 million deaths per year from cardiovascular diseases, CHD accounts for about 7 million.

This mold-breaking project was announced this time last year, at the AHA’s flagship medical event, Scientific Sessions.

Within a few months, 349 researchers from 22 countries around the world submitted streamlined applications. MacRae – the Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of the core training hospitals for Harvard Medical School – was announced as the winner in October.

His premise is that all cases of coronary heart disease look similar once diagnosed, but every patient gets there in a different way. So he’s searching for the earliest possible markers of the disease and he’s looking for them in places where researchers traditionally haven’t looked. That includes things like the shape of people’s faces, the air they breathe and, of course, the food they eat.

“We’ve known for a long time that the disease can be detected in some forms in your teens,” MacRae said. “Using biology and technology, we want to be able to detect the different forms before they converge.”

Everything about this project is unusual for the world of medical research, from the timeline that took it from concept-to-reality to the amount of funding for a single project; it’s the largest single research investment in the AHA’s 92-year history. Those unusual steps are part of the genesis of the project. That is, the brave idea behind One Brave Idea was aiming to do things differently.

Calum MacRae, MD, PhD, speaks during D3-President: OPS.01 - Opening Session, Presidental Address by Steven R HouserWith cardiovascular thought leaders gathered again for Scientific Sessions, MacRae provided an overview of his plans Sunday. On Monday, he took part in a panel discussion with several members of the group overseeing his work: Dr. Bob Harrington, an AHA Board member; Dr. Greg Keenan, vice president of Medical Affairs and U.S. head medical officer of AstraZeneca; and Dr. Jessica Mega, chief medical officer of Verily.

“This is really such a fun journey,” Mega said. “It just feels right.”

The project will run for five years, with MacRae and his team tapping into the expertise of each of his funding organizations for support. For instance, on the food study, his team member Dr. Laszlo Barbasi at Northeastern University, plans to use AHA resources to expand participation and they will rely on Verily for help translating the findings.

He expects the food study will start Jan. 1, which is when the whole project formally kicks off. He hopes the food study goes nationwide within a year and eventually believes it will expand to other countries.

“We know already that coronary heart disease is a growth abnormality of the blood vessels,” he said. “So we’re asking: Is there a detectable abnormality in other tissues? Does it change the way in which you interact with your nutrition? How do you distribute your nutrition around your body? How are you actually using the nutrition that comes in? Are there specific nutrients that drive the biology in a particular direction?”

There is one major caveat to this study, and to everything else One Brave Idea undertakes: It might be a dead end.

If early efforts indicate it’s not a good use of resources, MacRae and the leadership group are willing to scrap it. This is another example of their new way of doing things, an approach the group often compares to having the culture of a start-up company.

“Traditionally, science takes a long time,” Keenan said. “We’re already demonstrating a need for speed here. It doesn’t mean we’re throwing out good methodology. We’re just moving more quickly.”