India is the best place in the world to do something transformative, two experts working on an ambitious plan to speed up cancer detection have said, citing the country’s vast technological resources, its people and its enabling environment.
Speaking at one of the one-on-one sessions during the 21st edition of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday, Keith Flaherty, the director of clinical research at Harvard Medical School, and technologist Vivek Wadhwa talked about how their project, which combines technology with the biosciences , could revolutionize cancer care and India’s role in helping make them a reality.
“I think the American medical system is broken. There are too many obstacles. The best place to do something transformative is India, where there is no need to protect a legacy,” said Wadhwa, who works with Flaherty at Karkinos, a Tata Trusts-backed startup focused on oncology.
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The two said they are optimistic about India’s ability to do what is not possible in other nations, especially given the demands of the science and data such a project requires.
“Today we catch cancer too late. In India, it’s almost always at stage four when it’s too late,” said Wadhwa, explaining the principle behind the approach at Karkinos, which aims to use artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies to better search for biological indicators of when someone might have the disease.
Wadhwa, who focuses on future technologies as a public speaker and policy adviser, said he turned to oncology after losing his wife to cancer. “We came up with a grand plan. What was the big plan? It was to get all the data and bio-samples we needed,” he said, explaining it as crucial to the development of a new – faster and cheaper – way to detect malignancies entering the body.
“We are now at a point where we have methods to detect signs of cancer. But even they are not fully diagnostic,” said Flaherty, adding that methods such as genome sequencing do not scale with screening methods, particularly in poorer parts of the world.
“”This is really the most complex human disease, but this technology (genomic sequencing and protein analysis) has not been applied to a biospecimen and not combined with patient data and patient outcome,” Flaherty said.
“The poor cannot afford blood tests in most parts of the world, let alone genetic sequencing. At Harvard, patients get full genetic sequencing and are treated accordingly,” said Wadhwa.
Both he and Flaherty said India provided the opportunity to access at scale such data, which could then be used to train AI-based technology to improve finding clues to cancer earlier and through less complex methods, such as blood. “We need hundreds of thousands of samples. Guess what? India has all the data and needs and scientists,” Wadhwa said.
A key component of their support comes directly from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both said. “We were amazed how in no time Modi and I were talking like friends. I told him that we can collect Karkinos only because of his support,” Wadhwa said.
“We were told we would get 15 minutes if we were lucky as the Prime Minister is a busy man. But we have 50 minutes. He was guiding the conversation, exploring the areas and really looking around the corner where it was all going. By the time we got to the later parts of the conversation, it was obvious to him and to us that what we were talking about was not closing a gap, not just catching up to India, but slingshotting,” Flaherty added.
The two were expansive in their praise of the work ethic in the Indian workforce they saw. Wadhwa, an Indian-American, said he decided to make India the base because Silicon Valley had “become too arrogant”.
“India’s entrepreneurs, scientists and doctors have a disorienting sense of humility. It’s disorienting to a Westerner because humility is not a cultural norm,” Flaherty added.
“I have only one important thing to say. India can make a diagnostic revolution on its own. But where we need partnership is in therapy. Access to therapy in India is a major problem. So I appeal to partners, biotech companies, big pharma companies, therapeutic product developers to see the opportunity to help the whole world through this venture,” he said.
It is such collaboration, he added, that will set an example to the world in revolutionizing care, he added.