A novel radiation-free breast cancer screening method

FemTech forerunners- Episode 2 with Dr. Geetha Manjunath

Founder & CEO of Niramai Health Analytix

Edited by Aishwarya Viswamitra

(Transcript by Otter.ai)

As we all know, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in India. Niramai Health Analytix is a Bangalore-based company that has developed a unique technology comparable to traditional screening and is creating a buzz around the world. Miyara’s Dr. Gayatri Muthukrishnan sat down with Dr. Geetha Manjunath, the CEO of Niramai, to learn about how Geetha became an entrepreneur, the status of breast cancer diagnosis and awareness in India, the advantages of using their breast screening method, and how you can get tested in the convenience of your own home.

Here is the full interview:

Gayatri: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what led you down the path of starting this project, this company?

Geeta: I'm basically a techie! I did my Computers Bachelors and Masters from the Indian Institute of Science. Then I joined a research group, which worked on the first supercomputer developer. It was a very good learning experience. After that, I joined Hewlett Packard research labs and was the first member from India, back in ‘97. Through all of this, I was trying to look at innovation, trying to come up with new ideas with my team, and trying to make a difference on the ground. Of course, we continue to publish, we continue to patent but how does it change right now? That has always been a passion for me.

After about 17 years at HP, I joined Xerox research to head analytics research for India where very interesting AI work was being done. I was in techno-managerial roles so I used to interact with a lot of customers, including hospitals, doctors, and so on. We were innovating with artificial intelligence because, let's say, for example: detecting if a person can or will go into an ICU tomorrow. We can then take care of them earlier before they become worse! Around this time, a cousin sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was just a year older than me and it was very shocking because it was detected in a late-stage and she had only a few months left. I started reading up about breast cancer. Coincidentally, I met an imaging specialist and casually mentioned that we should work in this area. He started looking at different types of imaging, those used for something else but mentioned that thermal imaging had been used for breast cancer detection. We set up a project to try it out and after a year I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life on this because I felt like it had an opportunity to save many lives. I quit my job and started Niramai. So I call myself an accidental entrepreneur. I really think we've been able to create something that can help so many women detect cancer much earlier in an accessible and affordable manner.

Gayatri: Could you explain the breast cancer screening process?

Geetha: Did you know that last year 680,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer? But what is interesting, and probably the positive angle is that breast cancer is not a death sentence, it is completely curable! So what is the gap? Though it is the largest cancer killer, many women can be saved, the only thing that is needed is early detection.

Mammography uses X-rays to detect whether or not there are small lumps in the breast by compressing the breasts between two plates and passing X rays through it. But it does not work on women under 45 years of age. It may not even work on women above 45 years of age as well. Let's say we take an X-ray of my hand: the skeleton appears white, right? Because anything that is hard is stopped by the X-ray and appears white. That is the principle behind finding small lumps in the breast. But in younger women, there's a lot of fiber glandular tissue and hormonal activities going on so the whole breast appears white normally. How do you find a white spot in a white zone? So that is the reason why even radiologists find it very difficult to find cancer in dense places using mammography. This means that the lump is only seen when it is big and when it is staged. The efficacy of treatment at later stages is costlier and more uncertain. The treatment may or may not work.

There are alternatives like you can go get an MRI done, but an MRI is not an annual screening machine. Some of the gaps exist closer to home in India, it is not even affordable. With the mentality that all of us feel like we will not get cancer, you know that mentality, why spend 3500 rupees? So that's also an issue. And so all of that will result in only 50% of breast cancer in India being detected. In the UK there is government funding and more women get regular mammograms but younger