When breast cancer screening is like a ‘changing room’ experience

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on May 10, 2019

Nidhi Mathur (left) and Geetha Manjunath

Start-up Niramai, founded by IT researchers, uses AI algorithm for the process


It all seemed to come together at the same time for Geetha Manjunath. With over 25 years of IT research experience, Dr Manjunath was on an analytical project exploring the use of Artificial Intelligence in a hospital environment when a close family member was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was a shock,” she says, as another family member was diagnosed in a matter of months. Having worked on projects that did a “remote sensing of health vitals”, Dr Manjunath had seen the use of thermal cameras in monitoring health. She decided to explore if breast cancer could be screened through similar non-contact methods. “We started by taking thermal images of people with breast cancer and studied them,” she recalls. Thermal cameras pick up heat generated by the body surface. Heightened activity by cancer cells generate more heat and show up as abnormalities.

“For two years we researched on this, I worked with a small team,” recounts Dr Manjunath, on the build-up to quitting the company she was with and setting up Niramai in 2016, along with co-founder Nidhi Mathur.

“It was a brave decision,” she agrees, to give up a steady job and take the plunge into the start-up world. “But this was the opportunity to make a difference in the life of women and I did not want to regret later,” she says, as two scientists and two IT professionals from her former team joined her. Soon another friend also joined in, says Dr Manjunath, the CEO and CTO of the fledgling venture that started operations in January 2017.

Explaining how the lab project worked in a hospital setting, she says they drew up a solution involving thermal imaging, an AI algorithm and a bunch of procedures on what technicians or the doctor needed to do, etc. This was tried out in hospitals, where Niramai’s predictive analysis tool Thermalytix was compared with actual mammograms that mapped the presence of breast cancer. The results gradually began to show, she says, as Niramai’s outcomes were comparable to mammography.

Outlining the benefits, Dr Manjunath says a thermal imaging camera combined with their analytical tool was usable in young women, unlike mammography advised for women over 45 years. It involved no exposure to radiation, had no side effects and was not painful. And, it involved greater privacy, she says, comparing it to a shopper’s experience. The person needed to walk into a changing room scenario and sit for about 10 to 15 minutes and did not have to even see the technician.

“Our IP (intellectual property) is in the predictive analysis of the thermal images,” she says. Though thermal cameras have been around, there’s more involved than a mere reading of the thermal images by a doctor, which is error prone. Niramai’s tool provides 70 per cent greater accuracy than a manual inspection, claims Dr Manjunath.

After the initial screening, women requiring further diagnosis are advised to go in for further intervention.

This year, the start-up is focussed on growing in India, with plans to also get CE and FDA certifications to venture into other countries. In the meanwhile, research will continue using tech solutions to address other breast-related ailments, says Dr Manjunath.

Published on May 10, 2019

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