Every year in the United States, 1,400 infants die of SIDS: sudden infant death syndrome. John Kahan lost his son to SIDS and felt compelled to do something to help other families.
Kahan harnessed the data-crunching power of his employer, Microsoft, and the expertise of researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute to provide life-saving information.
Kahan travels the world photographing wildlife to raise money for SIDS research.
"Aaron Matthew was born in October of 2003, and shortly after he was born, he stopped breathing," Kahan said.
Aaron died a few days later. His death haunts his parents.
"Actually, as I've gotten older, it's become more real to me that this is something that's unacceptable and it's something that we need to change," Kahan said.
A new dad and Microsoft colleague suggested data science might help researchers gain new insight to causes.
Juan M. Lavista Ferres, senior director Microsoft, AI for Good said, "In order for some of the projects to work, you need expertise on both sides. You have the data scientists and you, more importantly, you need doctors that understand what the data is saying."
They focused on records of 20 million births and about 1,900 unexplained infant deaths of infants from the CDC. The findings from the data analysis were extremely specific.
Tatiana M. Anderson, PhD, a neuroscientist at Seattle Children's Research Institute said, "We found that just smoking a single cigarette a day during pregnancy doubles your risk of sudden unexpected infant death."
Researchers also learned that smoking within three months of conceiving, even if moms quit in the first trimester, increases SIDS risk by 50 percent. And if no moms smoked during pregnancy, 800 infant deaths could be prevented every year.
"I'm more optimistic than I've ever been before. We're actually making progress to be able to understand, to be able to prevent this in the future," said Kahan.
The Microsoft-Seattle Children's team says the first study explains 22% of SIDS deaths. They're working on several more papers that take the same granular look at other causes of SIDS. Dr. Anderson hopes moms will be able to get genetically screened for risk factors before birth so those can be addressed after the baby is born.
Sudden infant death syndrome: Data scientists join forces with researchers to prevent SIDS
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