The winning team of the second annual Duke-Engineering World Health CUREs non-profit business competition has developed a device to help catch cervical cancer early in women of developing countries. The low-cost device called a cerviScope might also hold promise for use in industrialized countries, including the U.S., according to Duke physicians familiar with the new cancer-screening instrument.
"Our ambition is to save the lives of 19,000 women in the next five years by helping them get access to cervical cancer screenings," said Theo Tam, the team leader and a graduate student in the Master of Engineering Management Program at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.
"Our primary mission is to make an impact in places like Haiti and Tanzania," he continued. "This is what our vision is founded on. But if hospitals here see potential in our device, I certainly don't have a problem with that."
As winners of the competition, the team's company ImaGYN will receive $100,000 in startup funds and incubation at the Pratt School of Engineering, including business, technical and legal advice and support for clinical trials. The ImaGYN team includes Tam, Wynn Xiao Wu, Adnan Haider, Gauravjit Singh and Ram Balasubramanian.
Cervical cancer, caused almost exclusively by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), is the second most common cause of death from cancer among women worldwide. The disease has reached epidemic proportions in some Caribbean countries, where the Pan American Health Organization has found the cervical cancer rates to be at least three times higher than in North America. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of female cancer death in Haiti, which has the highest incidence of the disease of any country.
The disease typically remains in a pre-cancerous state for 10 to 15 years, during which advanced cervical cancer is highly preventable, Tam said. A simple visual inspection with acetic acid—a key ingredient of vinegar—is a proven and effective screening method.
Based on the findings of Family Health Ministries through the efforts of Duke's David Walmer and Marcus Henderson in Haiti over the last ten years, the new cerviScope device is designed to aid in the cancer screening process by providing 8x magnification and white and green light to enhance visual contrast. Tam's team created the device "from scratch" specifically for low-resource environments, making it portable, durable and battery-operated with the option for manual power. The design effort was supported by the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance and Family Health Ministries.
The ImaGyn team intends to market the device for $600. Currently available instruments for cervical screening cost more than $10,000.
"We need more upstream solutions to catch disease in the earliest stages," said Dr. Kathleen Clem, chief of emergency medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "Most importantly, the cerviScope supports the concept of immediate care with its one-day screen-and-treat potential."
"It's possible that even in the developed country, countries like the United States, there might be a market or an interest in it," said Dr. Peter Cartwright, of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Duke.
This year's CUREs competition was a very tight race, according to Chuck Messer, an engineer at Tackle Design in Durham who has served as a CUREs judge for the last two years. The runner-up team, led by Fuqua student Kyle Stanzel, developed a low-cost incubator for premature infants. Stanzel's company, called Innovators of Hope, will continue to seek out funding in support of the incubator, which has the potential to make a difference for more than one million babies in developing world countries each year.
CUREs is a non-profit business plan competition sponsored by Engineering World Health (EWH), a Duke-based organization co-founded by Robert Malkin, professor of the practice in biomedical engineering at Duke's Pratt School. EWH aims to bring medical technology to the developing world to solve public health problems while promoting entrepreneurship.