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How start-ups are using a 360-degree approach to defeating cancer

Rashie Jain, an alumni of IIT Kanpur, was leading a normal life until cancer struck a family member in 2010, turning her life upside down. Even after several years of experience in the healthcare ecosystem, she had countless questions about the treatment.

“It was like being in the dark. There were too many questions such as what to except from the treatment; what could be the side effects; what should be the changes in the diet,” says Jain, who found the process exhaustive and emotionally draining. The biotechnology engineer had seen her husband run a start-up on the side, so she decided to build a patient-facing platform for cancer care. Along with oncologist Amit Jotwani, Jain started building a platform for oncology solutions and thus Onco.com was born in 2017.

It is like a virtual cancer care hospital which has a four-sided network of doctors, hospitals, diagnostics labs and caregivers for a 360-degree treatment of the complex disease.

Technology forms the backbone of this network of 1,500 oncologists across India and the US, and 500 hospitals. There is the dual medical intelligence of doctors and a powerful recommendation algorithm built by the technology team at Onco.com to give a personalised experience to patients. At any stage during the treatment, a patient can upload his/her documents to get customised cancer treatment guidance.

The Accel, Chiratae Venture-backed company is seeing a registry of 10,000 new patients every month with 50,000 active member on the platform. Its services are already available in the US, African countries and West Asia, and is aggressively penetrating deeper into India.

Onco.com is one of the several start-ups that have taken birth in India over the past years with an aim of reducing the burden of the patients suffering from the deadly disease. According to reports, there are around 2.25 million people living with cancer in the country while the disease is reported to have caused 700,000 deaths last year alone. A study by the Journal of Global Oncology says the cases will double every 20 years. The incidence of breast cancer is at its peak in the age group of 50-60 years. Hence India is staring at a breast cancer epidemic as the millennial generation turns older in this decade.

“Young women only go for an ultrasound after they find a lump during self-examination, which is already stage-2 or 3 of cancer, if it is malignant,” says Geetha Manjunath, founder of Bengaluru-based Niramai, which uses thermal imaging to detect early cancer. Its patented diagnostic technique called Thermalytix combines thermal imaging with artificial intelligence (AI) to detect breast cancer at an early stage. A high-resolution thermal sensing device powered by a patented software developed in-house scans for any thermal abnormality in the breast tissue. Niramai’s software analyses this temperature distribution to generate a diagnostic report with a breast health score.

Thermalytix takes 400,000 temperature values and analyses it using 120 abnormality indicators, thereby identifying high-risk patients who need a follow-up test. Backed by marquee investors such as Pi Ventures, Binny Bansal, Axilor Ventures, and Ankur Capital, Niramai with its non-touch and non-invasive techniques provides a unique experience to the patients.

OncoStem Diagnostics, a startup founded by IISc alumni Manjiri Bakre is also using machine learning to fight the plague of breast cancer with CanAssist-Breast test. As chemotherapy kills even the healthy cells, OncoStem’s technology helps diagnose if a patient should undergo the procedure or not.

Apart from early diagnosis and reducing fatality rate via technology, AI and ML, start-ups are also giving post treatment care to survivors. Samara Mahindra’s Bengaluru-based start-up Carer, as the name suggests, connects survivors with therapists for a holistic recovery of the patients.

Unlike in the West, cancer treatment in India focuses on medication alone, ignoring lifestyle changes that could prevent relapse, she says. The carer protocol focuses on three primary aspects of the patient’s condition –reduce the impact of side effects; manage the treatment better, and improve immunity and quality of life.

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