For generations, malaria has taken a heavy toll on third world populations. It still ravages certain parts of the world. Among nearly 200 million cases last year, 438,000 people died of the disease in 2015 according to the World Health Organization; 90% of those were deaths in Africa.
Yet there has been little change in diagnostics for decades. Analysis can sometimes take weeks and be inaccurate. But one Israeli startup is betting that it has broken new ground in battling the pervasive disease.
“We developed a new method that we applied several patents on to prepare a blood sample,” Sight Diagnostics CEO Yossi Pollak tells Geektime. “We understood we could go to many more applications, but we targeted malaria that is affecting more than a third of the world’s population. Of course, there has been virtually no innovation in this for a long time.”
Sight’s technology utilizes computer vision to recognize malaria parasites and distinguish them from other illnesses. Between its Jerusalem and Tel Aviv locations, Sight sports a diverse team of Hebrew University experts in computer vision and graduates of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Talpiot program for the sciences.
Malaria rarely gets attention in Western circles beyond warnings when traveling to tropical countries. Beyond the human devastation it causes, malaria also has a direct, negative impact on the economy in Africa, taking a $12 billion toll on medical services, lost productivity and other sectors affecting growth. If this does speed up diagnosis and treatment, it actually would be worthy of being dubbed “disruption.”
Misdiagnosis and malaria resistance
Training takes an hour, not weeks. Combined with the turnaround time for results, a malaria test is now a drop-in to the doctor’s office. But this is a sophisticated piece of machinery for a part of the world not so accustomed to paying lucrative costs for equipment that Western hospitals might do a poor job negotiating over. Pollak tells me I would be right to assume that Western customers would be fewer, but it’s meant to be a cost-effective technology for cash-strapped medical facilities in less wealthy parts of the world.
“Surprisingly, even though your assumption is right, we from day one developed the tech to be competitive in those price-sensitive technology. It is not much more expensive than the other tests, so definitely we’re starting with customers in India, Africa and other places.”
It is reportedly far more accurate than a microscopic analysis and can diagnose far earlier than standard tests. They started clinical trials back in 2012 and began selling the device in 2015.
They claim to have achieved a 99% accurate diagnosis. They’ve already got 40 devices in service between India and Africa, “conducting over 10,000 tests to date, after the clinical trials.” They haven’t kept a tally of how many cases they’ve diagnosed, but state it is over 500.
That would be a tremendous achievement, because it can allow for earlier treatment of early-stage cases for people who otherwise would not have even been tested. An unexpected problem in developing countries isn’t a lack of treatment, but over-prescription.
“In Nigeria, we found almost half the tested people were being treated who shouldn’t have been because the cost of the medicine was so low it was worth prescribing it,” he tells Geektime, adding that some well-respected hospitals in the country were taking this strategy of over-cautiousness in order to treat the infected. One study in fact found 30% of malaria diagnoses to be misdiagnoses. “The WHO recommends only treating in cases of positive diagnosis. It’s a bit like bacterial infections where the bacteria develops resistance to antibiotics.”
Crushing malaria, and beyond
They “definitely” want to move beyond malaria to spread computer vision to blood analysis. They tell Geektime that they’re now working on tests that will provide far more accurate CBCs (complete blood counts).
With the attention the actual disease gets, it’s imperative to add talk about asymptomatic carriers to malaria education.
“Something very interesting we discovered or learned when discussing the technology with NGOs is that many times the reason the disease expands is people who are not symptomatic are contagious. You could have malaria in your blood system and be contagious when you donate blood.”
They are currently going through clinical trials to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They’ve raised over $10 million, including grant support from Israel’s Chief Scientist.
Pollak had found more than just a business opportunity here. There was now a clear mission to Sight Diagnostics’ technology.
“We’ll be the only possibility for a patient who is still at the doctor’s office, as opposed to a [traditional] rapid test, which could be the difference between treatment and no treatment.”