In 2016, Geetha Manjunath had a terrific career heading the Data Analytics Research Laboratory in Xerox Research Centre India (XRCI). And then, one phone call changed her life.
Her cousin, all of 42, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As the diagnosis was done very late, she didn’t survive. “I was devastated,” she recalls.
Working in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Bengaluru resident decided to quit her job and find a tech-based solution to detect breast cancer early.
“The mammogram had missed her cancer earlier,” she tells The Better India. “So I wanted to develop a tool that could help detect it early, even in women below 45, as mammograms are often unable to detect cancer in younger women.”
“As I was working with multiple image modalities for other projects at Xerox, I chanced upon thermal imaging.”
Towards the end of 2016, Geetha launched Niramai Health Analytix.
Their patented diagnostic solution called Thermalytix combines thermal imaging with AI to detect early-stage breast cancer.
Thermography uses infrared cameras to record temperature profiles from various areas of the breast. The likely presence of a tumour can be determined by the temperature distribution, as per Science Direct. But the problem lies in interpreting the results of the images. That’s where AI and scientists like Geetha come into the picture.
“The problem with thermal imaging is accurately identifying the abnormality and interpreting the result. We need to have accurate, repeatable results. As our first experiment, after developing our solution, we tied up with Kasturba Medical College, Manipal and did a project using thermal images of 72 cancer patients. We screened these patients and were able to find the location of their tumours,” adds the entrepreneur.
They worked with a few more hospitals and were able to replicate the results on cancer patients. However, their idea was to detect cancer in the general population. Their first challenge was making hospitals agree to let them conduct camps.
“While we had developed our product, we needed clinical studies to make doctors believe in it. We had to convince hospitals to start testing our solution. Luckily, BMS Hospital in Bengaluru helped us out and we were able to test our product there. Few months later, Karnataka Cancer Society let us conduct screening camps outside their hospital,” says Geetha.
How it works
According to WHO, in 2020, 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer — the world’s most prevalent form of the disease — across the world. As many as 6,85,000 women lost their lives to breast cancer in the same year. In terms of mortality, 37.2 per cent of women died from this disease in India in 2020, compared to the global average of 30 per cent, as per the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
One of the major reasons for the high mortality in India is late detection. To solve this problem and provide affordable testing, Geetha developed Thermalytix.
“Our device measures the temperature variation in the chest with the help of thermal imaging. Our AI converts the temperature distribution to a cancer screening report. It predicts if there is an abnormality or not. After this, the patients can go for an ultrasound,” says Geetha.
So instead of 100 people going for an invasive mammogram or ultrasound, only the 2-8 who are detected with an abnormality can go in for further testing.
“One of the highlights of our device is that it is privacy aware. No one sees or touches the patient. We have a screen in between the technician and her. She just has to sit in front of the device while the technician sees the laptop. It’s also radiation free and doesn’t hurt. This is a universal cancer screening solution and is globally relevant,” adds the scientist.
75000 women screened
The solution uses a high resolution thermal sensing device and a cloud hosted analytics solution to analyse the thermal images. This test is radiation free, non-invasive, portable, and privacy aware.
So far, 75,000 women have been screened using Niramai’s device across 29 cities in India. What worked in their favour, according to the founder, was the overwhelming response by women.
“We conducted a camp for the company I worked at, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC). We had just four registrations. I was very disappointed. However, to my surprise, after 12, we had so many women coming in. In fact, it was 7:30 PM and ten more women were waiting to be screened. They were all very happy with the screening process,” smiles Geetha.
What was a free camp turned into the first paycheck for Niramai. “The MD was so happy that he gave us a cheque for Rs 5,000,” she says.
One of the women who did a screening using Niramai at a private hospital said that she was very satisfied with the method of screening.
“As part of my organisation, we have yearly checkups. For women above 40 like me, that includes a mammogram. But a mammogram is extremely painful and many of us used to dread it. When I was offered this screening, which was non-invasive, I grabbed it. The screen between the technician and me while testing, plus a device that doesn’t hurt you, really helped. And it’s only 10-15 minutes long,” says Radha, a woman screened by Niramai’s device.
The device is currently operational in UAE, Kenya, and the Philippines as well. It has also received regulatory clearance in Europe and USA, and will be launched there shortly.
Thermalytix has 29 granted patents. The company recently won the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s intellectual property award.
Providing universal access to cancer detection
Another focus area of Niramai is conducting camps in rural areas, where access to diagnostic tests is poor.
“We are working with state governments and grants by non-profit organisations like ACT to conduct free screening in rural areas. We want to test every woman, irrespective of her economical or geographical status,” adds Geetha.
ACT for Health is assisting Niramai in conducting breast cancer screening in Andhra Pradesh with the goal of enhancing early stage cancer detection treatment. They will be screening 5,000 women in the state in the coming six months.
Niramai has different rates for rural and urban screening.
“In rural areas, we provide scans for as low as Rs 100, if a full printed report is not required. As we are working with governments and grants, it is totally free for the end user. In urban areas, we charge Rs 1,500, as a detailed report is required in a hospital setting,” explains Geetha.
They now want to expand to more cities in India as well as the rest of the world, and make the testing cheaper.
“We want to stop the deaths due to breast cancer. For that, every woman must be screened every year. I want to reach every woman on earth, that’s my goal,” says Geetha.
Edited by Divya Sethu
‘Breast cancer: Government data shows fatal disease’s increasing prevalence’ by Piyush Aggarwal for India Today, Published on 19 August, 2022
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