Annually 1,30,000 people succumb to oral cancer in India which translates into 14 deaths per hour. The tragic part of the story is that the morbidity rate can be reduced significantly by early detection. The problem is that the current method to catch the killer disease is neither very accessible nor entirely accurate.
Biopsies Are Cumbersome & Unreliable At Early Stage
The most well-known and widely applied method to detect cancer at present is a biopsy. This painful and cumbersome procedure requires scraping affected tissue from the patient for further testing in a lab. In the specific case of early stage oral cancer, doctors often need to play a guessing game to identify the part of the mouth from where the tissue has to be sourced since the tissue deterioration is not yet visible to the naked eye. Failure to identify the correct area leads to multiple biopsies thereby increasing patient discomfort and often produces inaccurate results.
Breakthrough Research In A Govt Lab
Government scientist turned entrepreneur Dr. Suresh Nair, who is presently MD & CEO of Kochi-based Inno Breeze Technologies strongly felt that an affordable yet practical non-invasive method could be developed. He discovered some exciting basic research being done at the Biophotonics Laboratory of the Centre for Earth Science Studies near Thiruvananthapuram. The study was on a new kind of Diffused Reflectance Spectroscopy (DRS), which is a technique that uses light reflected off tissues to determine changes in tissue architecture, cell morphology and biochemical composition. The study suggested that by beaming different wavelengths of light (in the green-yellow part of the visible spectrum) into the oral cavity and comparing the readings, a highly accurate prediction of early stage cancer could be made. The study was published in the prestigious British Medical Journal and InnoBreeze decided to acquire the intellectual property from the lab and file for a patent.
Lightweight, Cheap & Accurate: Developing A Prototype
The next step was to design a working product that would be compact, easy to use and provide accurate readings. The company collaborated with local manufacturers and designers to engineer what Dr Nair calls a “light engine” which could be enclosed in a light-weight case and run on the freely available Android operating system. Another patent was filed for the design and thus was born BreezeScan – a device that could minimize surgical intervention for millions of people.
While devices currently available in the market provide doctors with some data on which a subjective assessment is made, the innovative ‘ratiometric’ approach to DRS allows BreezeScan to provide instant reliable results based on the company’s proprietary algorithms. Color coded instructions and a touch screen interface eliminate the need for any special training to operate Breezescan and the entire procedure can be completed in about two minutes per patient. Data is stored on the device but can be transferred via bluetooth in case further investigation is needed in another location.
Speaking to Beyond Jugaad Dr. Nair said that BreezeScan has tremendous potential since he believes it is the only effective device that can provide an end-to-end diagnosis in a non-invasive way. “It is unlike other existing solutions in the market that are expensive and are just additional tools that give the doctor more visibility to make better judgements, not necessarily identifying the cancer,” says Dr. Nair.
The Home Stretch: Field Trials
BreezeScan is currently being tested extensively in clinical trials. According to Dr. Nair “limited patient trials were done at Government Dental College and Regional Cancer Centre in Trivandrum and we are fine tuning the algorithm to establish excellent specificity and sensitivity.” Ethical clearance has been obtained from the Government Medical College, Kochi and the company is in talks with the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi and Regional Cancer Centre, Trivandrum for further testing.
The company is in the process of finalizing its business model for BreezeScan and is in talks with Venture Capilatists reveals Dr. Nair. The goal is to get the price point down to Rs. 1,00,000 for the device and about Rs. 30 per test for a patient. “The government has been focussing on affordable health, and early detection of cancer would be a major breakthrough,” hopes Dr. Nair.
While major commercial success may still be some distance away, the accolades have started coming in. The company recently beat out 1300 applicants to win the prestigious India Innovation Award 2014. Its journey from lab to market could well become the benchmark for basic research led innovation in the country, and if all goes well, save thousands of lives in the process.