Published: 04th October 2020
This IISc alum's start-up has developed what could be the simplest way to detect breast cancer
Dr Geetha Manjunath's health-tech start-up NIRAMAI has devised a touch-free, pain-free and radiation-free way to detect breast cancer in women. They have screened more than 30,000 women in India
Dr Geetha Manjunath, Co-founder, CEO and CTO of NIRAMAI Health Analytix uses the concept of Articial Intelligence to fight against some of the world's biggest problems. With a PhD in both Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning from the Indian Insitute of Science in Bengaluru, she has put her knowledge to good use by creating a tool called SMILE that can make breast cancer screening and detection touch-free, pain-free and radiation-free. Having been one of the first batches to write the Common Entrance Test — in which she secured the 12th rank in Engineering and 15th in Medical — she choose to pursue Computer Science Engineering. "I was more interested in studying Physics and Mathematics than Biology. Now, I feel like I picked the right option as I am solving a lot of medical problems with my engineering skills," she says.
Excerpts from our conversation:
1. What led you to start NIRAMAI and develop this amazing breast cancer screening/detecting tool?
When I was working for Xerox Labs, heading the analytics research department, I worked with several healthcare organisations and hospitals to provide solutions to their problems through technology and various other ways. At that time, my cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was in her early 40s. I was mentally disturbed after hearing the news and started reading more about the disease. I discussed the screening method of this disease with the doctors. That's when I started a small project with a colleague and worked for more than one year on this thermography tool called SMILE. Thus, started NIRAMAI Health Analytix and with it, the launch of this tool that is non-invasive, radiation-free and non-touch as well.
Dr Geetha Manjunath
2. How exactly does this tool work?
The best and most unique factor of this tool is that we don't use X radiation. X rays are usually used in mammography. Unlike the traditional machines and methods where the technician places the woman's breast between two plates that spread the tissue, here neither the machine, not the technician will touch you. It is extremely uncomfortable and painful for women when the breast is pressed between the plates.
Another factor that is worrisome is that while screening women above 45 years, all the breast tissues appear white because of more fibroglandular tissue. Because of this, the doctor or technician will not be able to spot the active and inactive tissues. Therefore, we we use a thermal sensor with an infrared camera where we can see how each cell is acting or growing in the tissue. This gives a clear picture of the tissues so much so that even if one tissue is not functioning normally, it appears in the report.
This tool can also analyse temperature points of every tissue in the breast, so that we can understand their functions easily. At the end, we give scores on the report. If the scoring is zero, then the condition is normal and if the scoring is one, then they need to get treated immediately. With this technology, breast cancer can be detected even before the lump can be felt. The process is completely automatic without much human interference thanks to Artificial Intelligence.
3. With this new technology, does this screening happen only at hospitals and healthcare institutes?
Another USP of this technology is that it can be done at home as well, thus making it easy for the women. Once the person takes an appointment with NIRAMAI, a well-trained female technician will go to their home with the device. Though the whole process of screening takes nearly 40 minutes, the patient feels comfortable because they can enjoy privacy and safety. During this pandemic, we are taking all kinds of safety measures, especially when our technicians do home visits, as more people are getting the screening process done at home rather than visiting a hospital due to the fear of coming in contact with the Coronavirus. The equipment is also sanitised regularly. Currently, we are in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi and now, people are asking to set up centres at Bhubaneswar in Odisha and Panipat in Haryana as well.
4. Recently, NIRAMAI developed a technology to screen people for fever and respiratory problems. How does that work?
With more than six months in lockdown and the economy badly hit, people have started going back to work and office. Our technology can be placed wherever there is a huge movement of people. What our system does is it checks for symptoms as and when people walk in. It is an AI-enabled solution for automatic detection of fever and COVID-19 respiratory symptoms. In this system, we use NIRAMAI's very own AI solution called Thermalytix to detect fever and other symptoms. We can also generate a report on the same and send it to the office management alerting them about a person who has certain symptoms. This technology can be operated by a screened health worker in any office.
5. While there is a lot of work done to create awareness among women, has the NIRAMAI team approached women in rural areas to create awareness about breast cancer and screening?
We have tied up with various NGOs and the Karnataka Cancer Society and have screened more than 32,000 women for breast cancer. Aside from this, we have approached microfinance institutions who have rural women as their customers to conduct the screening using our tool. Many hospitals and Rotary International have also tied up with us to not just create awareness but also screen women for the same. In fact, we have released animated videos so that women in any part of the world can refer to them to look for these symptoms in themselves.