MENU

Microsoft data scientists turn skills to SIDS research

sids.jpg
Microsoft's John Kahan wants to know why he son died of SIDS and to make sure other parents don't suffer the same pain. (Photo: KOMO News)

REDMOND, Wash. (KOMO) -- Local scientists have made intriguing discoveries related to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. But these aren't health scientists. This new information comes from data scientists at Microsoft.

This team of data scientists normally takes reams of complex information to find trends important to Microsoft. Now the scientists are using their skills and technology to investigate a health mystery: What causes SIDS?

The quest started with the team's general manager, John Kahan, who lost his son to SIDS.

"Very personal. I want to know why Aaron passed away," Kahan said. "I want to make sure it doesn't happen to any other parent in the future."


Kahan raises awareness and money for SIDS research through mountain climbs, and after reaching his highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, he returned to work to find his team inspired.

(Here's a link to his fundraising page on Seattle Children's website.)

Kelty Allen is a senior data scientist at Microsoft. "This idea that maybe you could make a difference in something like SIDS, I decided to play around with the data and see if we could help," she said.

They took millions of pieces of information from the Centers for Disease Control on birth and infant death and discovered two new correlations suggesting SIDS risk is reduced when women have early prenatal care and cut back on smoking.

While medical researchers already had access to the same CDC data, it wasn't presented in a clear, easily understood way. "They don't have it in this way, and they don't have the capacity to understand the data on the probability of SIDS, said Juan Miguel Lavista, senior data science director at Microsoft. "They know certain races (and their risk of SIDS), and now they can see how these other things interact and change the probability of SIDS." Those other factors include various happenings during labor and delivery, the age and health of the parents and if this is the mother's first child.

They also created a tool where doctors can go down a checklist with expecting mothers.

"A doctor can ask all the different questions to their patients and understand exactly, for that patient, what is the probability of having a kid with SIDS," Lavista said.

That information is now at the Seattle Children's Research Institute, where scientists will try to turn all that data into answers. Researchers are already trying to better understand SIDS. A project currently underway analyzes networks in the brain that control breathing. The Microsoft tool will help the researchers better pinpoint where to focus their time, potentially speeding up their search.

"Instead of us not having a good idea of what could be happening and kind of trying to figure it out blindly or testing multiple things, Microsoft gave us a tool that tells us what is happening, what are the big markers, and we can test those," said Ibis Agosto, a Seattle Children's researcher. and a Ph.D.

Science must be methodical. But Kahan hopes the Microsoft tool can speed up progress.

"Since Aaron died 13 and a half years ago, 52,000 children in the United States died and parents do not know why. They don't know why. That has to stop," Kahan said. "We are straining and searching for something that's very personal. I want to know why Aaron passed away. So yes, it's personal. But it's to solve it so that it never happens for anyone else."

More To Explore