Startup of the Week / Diagnosing Cervical Cancer via Smartphone

As cancers go this one is easily treated, if caught in time - and this biophotonic device can also reduce misdiagnosis.

Every two minutes, a woman somewhere in the world dies from cervical cancer. That’s more than a quarter of a million a year, and it need not be that way.

Cervical cancer is relatively treatable, as long as it’s caught early enough. Now an Israeli startup, MobileOCT, hopes to reduce those mortality statistics with new technology for early detection - by smartphone.

How does it work? The method is based on a dedicated lens that is installed on a smartphone, or on a digital video camera: the important thing is a connection to the Internet.

“We looked into the potential of using optics to identify different diseases and chose to attack the biggest problem that we could solve the most quickly. A woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes, and these women don’t have to die,” says Ariel Beery, MobileOCT’s co-founder and CEO. “The idea is to get to market as quickly as possible with tools health workers can use to save lives.”

The use of remote technology (an optical device with an Internet connection) enables the disease to be diagnosed anywhere, not only in Western countries but in underdeveloped places where medical services are hard to come by.

MobileOCT, which was established in October 2012, aims not only to enable early detection of cervical cancer, but also to prevent misdiagnosis. “A woman has a less than 2% chance of contracting cervical cancer,” says Beery. “But in low-resource countries, the disease is diagnosed with the naked eye using a method known as VIA — visual inspection with three to five percent acetic acid.

The practitioner applies diluted vinegar to the cervix, waits one minute, and uses a bright light to look for areas that have turned white. While acetic acid causes changes in the cervical tissues that may be more pronounced in women with cervical cancer, but it’s hardly a reliable diagnostic method. It misses two-thirds of the actual cases, and worse still, leads to the treatment of healthy women for the disease in 83% of the cases. This means that women who don’t need treatment are being treated. Each treatment costs four times more than the examination. Our goal is to keep health workers from making this mistake so that they will be able to treat 100 times more women than they do today, at the same cost.”

Identifying the blood supply to tumors

MobileOCT’s diagnostic model is based on biophotonics. Put otherwise, the company is implementing biomedical engineering studies on how different human tissues react to light.

MobileOCT’s lens, mounted on a smartphone or other digital video device, absorbs the light reflected from the tissue being examined. The light is then analyzed by an algorithm, also developed by the company, which reveals what is happening in all the tissue layers.

For example, cancerous cells need blood and oxygen just like other cells. The company’s lens can detect a growth in the uppermost layer of the tissue thanks to the heightened blood flow and oxygen consumption beneath it.

The system also allows medical personnel to send the examination results to a gynecologist associated with the network for a professional opinion. The potential clientele for MobileOCT’s product are medical service providers all over the world. The diagnosis may be made by community health workers.

In fact, though smartphones are becoming increasingly common in the developing world, they aren’t even necessary for this. All the doctor needs is any old phone, however ratty, that has video capability. At this stage, the company’s lens is compatible with Nexus 4 smartphones, but later on it should be compatible with other devices. MobileOCT also intends to expand its diagnostic services to include skin and mouth cancer as well.

The company’s prototype of the product is in the testing stage. Beery estimates that it will go on the market sometime in 2015. The lens will be sold to customers at cost: at a later stage the health-service providers will pay for each examination.

This isn’t just a device for remote corners of the world. Beery says MobileOCT’s technology is also appropriate for the developed world, where the goal would be to reduce the number of biopsies, since its product has a higher degree of sensitivity and specificity than the currently-used colposcope.

MobileOCT was established just over a year ago by Beery and chief technology officer David Levitz. The company, which has 13 specialists and volunteers from all over the world, is funded mainly by its founders. It receives support from the Office of the Chief Scientist at the Economy Ministry and is in the midst of a fundraising round. It operates out of The Library, the home of the startup community in Tel Aviv, which is run by the Tel Aviv municipality.

David Levitz
David Levitz