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December 16, 2016 | Forbes
For 18-year-old Farheen Jahan, life took an ugly turn when she discovered a stiff growth in her breast. However, initial blood reports failed to detect anything serious. Later, in a health camp clinic set up in her locality in rural India she got herself scanned again with something called iBreastExam – a diagnostic tool designed to perform painless and radiation free breast scans, providing results instantly at the point of care.
The scan detected abnormal tissue in her breast. After an ultrasound and biopsy confirmed a malignant lump, she underwent an operation to remove the mass and today lives a healthy life.
“The technology is path-breaking to say the least. It has given me a new lease on life; I shudder to think what would have happened had my breast lump remained undetected,” says Jahan.
Breast cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in Indian cities. According to statistics found on the Population Based Cancer Registry, breast cancer accounts for 25% to 32% of all cancers reported by females in Indian urban areas. What’s more alarming is the survival rate of breast cancer patients in India which stands at a mere 50% compared to 90% in the U.S.
Why the startling difference? Patients turning up at advanced stages of the disease for treatment is one of the main reasons for the high mortality rate among women in India. High costs for medical checkups, low awareness of the disease and shyness on the part of patients are some other factors leading to delay in checkups.
Aiming to bridge the gap in this segment of Indian healthcare, developers Mihir Shah along with Matthew Campisi, built iBreastExam in the hopes of normalizing breast cancer prevention across India.
How it all happened
It all started with a personal motivation for Shah when a family member of his was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I enquired with my friends and they all knew somebody who was either a breast cancer survivor or undergoing treatment for it. I then realized the magnitude of the problem.”
In a country where there’s a shortage of doctors, let alone radiologists (there is one radiologist per 100,000 people in India), iBreastExam has everything it takes to be a major disruptor in India’s healthcare sector; it can examine 100,000 patients at the same cost that a mammogram tests 15,000 patients. The scan is a hand-held tool that enables community health workers to perform breast health examinations in virtually any setting, not just hospitals. “Mammography isn’t feasible in India due to high equipment cost and the lack of radiologists,” says Shah.
iBreastExam uses patented ceramic sensors developed at Philadephia’s Drexel University, Shah’s alma mater, to detect subtle variations in breast tissue. Shah developed his first breast scan device while abroad in the U.S.
But while the technology was there, portability was not. He had initially developed a product that was too bulky. Shah started selling it in the U.S to doctors but realized that for it to be successful in India it had to be smaller in size. “I was looking to create something that could be carried in a hand.”
Shah understood that Indians in general tend to eschew a preventive approach towards health, making early diagnoses of diseases challenging. Patients will leave hospital visits only until it’s absolutely necessary, making it crucial for better outreach into communities to address health issues. Shah’s product needed to be small enough to carry out into the field.
However he wasn’t left with enough funds after his initial prototype.
Then came an opportunity. In 2011, the Health Department of the State of Pennsylvania put out a request for proposals of projects that could help in cancer detection. Shah, looking for funds and guidance to make his device portable, put forward his proposal to the university. “After six months of waiting, I got a call from the university saying my project had been shortlisted,” he says. “I thought somebody was playing a bad joke. But finally when I saw the email from the university my joy knew no bounds”. Along with the team, Shah worked on the product design, and was able to realize his vision of a handheld scanner.
It’s little wonder the company is now generating huge interest among investors. So far, the startup has raised $3 million in Series A funding from Aarin Capital and a further $1.2 million in Series AA in September 2016 from Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the CEO of India’s largest biopharmaceutical company Biocon, and Unitus Seed Fund, an impact fund.
It has impressive support within the medical community as well. Dr. P. Raghu Ram, President of the Association of Breast Surgeons of India and a Padma Shri awardee (one of the top civilian awards in India), considers the product a breakthrough for developing countries as it empowers existing community healthcare workers working with the government to provide accurate, standardized and painless breast health examinations on a large scale.
“Various clinical validations show that iBreastExam is an accurate test,” says Dr. Raghuram. “It won the best research paper at the recently held Annual Conference of the Association of Breast Surgeons of India in Bengaluru this year.”
The company will sell the product on a pay-per-use model instead of direct sales, which will enable doctors to immediately start offering private, safe and pain-free breast exams. Shah says he has kept the costs flexible; doctors at high-end private hospitals are charged in the range of $10-$15 per test, whereas village clinics will be charged only $1.
The scan is currently used in leading private hospital groups in India like Manipal Hospitals and Narayana Health. In October, the Maharashtra Government launched a first of its kind breast cancer campaign with iBreastExam to screen over 250,000 women.
The company has a capacity to make 300 units a month, and hopes to eventually export to other countries faced with similar public health challenges.
“We plan to take the product to regions like South East Asia, Africa and Middle East. Hopefully we will be able to bring a positive change to the lives of women,” Shah says.