Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation backs Niramai to develop a cure for river blindness

Niramai's proprietary Thermalytics technology will now help detect River Blindness, which has affected 17 million people in Africa.

Artificial intelligence-based healthtech startup Niramai announced on Tuesday that it is developing an artificial intelligence (AI)-based computer-aided software for controlling the spread of River Blindness. It is a tropical skin disease caused by a parasitic worm transmitted through the bite of blackflies, which breeds in rivers. The project will run with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.   

Niramai will leverage its Thermalytix technology to detect the presence of live adult worms of Onchocerciasis, which causes River Blindness and significant disability. As a non-invasive method, it is expected to help assess the efficacy of new drugs being developed to control River Blindness by killing the adult worms. This in turn should help accelerate the elimination of the disease, which has affected nearly 17 million people in Africa today. 

Thermalytix, an automated diagnostic tool, combines thermal imaging with artificial intelligence to detect early stage breast cancer in many hospitals across the country.

(L-R): Niramai founders Nidhi Mathur and Geeta Manjunath

Dr Geetha Manjunath, CEO and CTO of Niramai, said in a statement, “We are very excited to collaborate with the Gates Foundation to extend the application of our innovative technique to areas other than breast cancer. Successful completion of this research project will demonstrate a breakthrough result of Thermalytix being a new way of sensing many abnormalities in human body in a non-invasive, radiation-free, and accurate way, even beyond cancer.”

A clinical expert collaborating with Niramai, Professor Dr Christopher L King from The Centre for Global Health and Diseases, Cleveland, added, “Onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness, is the world's second leading infectious cause of blindness. Niramai technology can be a valuable tool to detect infectious live worms in a non-invasive way and help with the global effort to eliminate this very disabling disease.”

About half a million people go blind or suffer visual impairment as a result of contracting the disease. Onchocerciasis is also an extensive and disfiguring skin disease, characterised by chronic itching, musculoskeletal complaints, weight loss, alteration in the patient's immune responses, and even epilepsy and growth impairment. 

Also read: Meet 5 Indian startups you didn’t know were working on making cancer easier to diagnose

According to a statement issued by Niramai, onchocerciasis can have a considerable impact on social relationships in poorest communities. Therefore, its control and elimination has been a high priority. 

"It has been categorised by the Gates Foundation as one of the high-opportunity target diseases under the strategy to address NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases)," the statement added.

Past awardees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant in India include the Indian School of Business, International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, Ratan Tata Trust, and Dvara Research Foundation, among others.

In February this year, Niramai raised $6 million in Series A funding, led by Japanese VC firm Dream Incubator, Beenext, and other investors. Existing investors such as Binny Bansal, Co-founder, Flipkart, pi Ventures, Axilor Ventures, and Ankur Capital also participated.

The deep-tech startup offers a radiation free, non-invasive, non-touch, breast cancer screening solution. The solution is portable, accurate, privacy aware, and can be used for women of all ages. Thermalytix is their core technology that uses a high resolution thermal sensing device and a cloud hosted analytics solution for analysing the thermal images. Its SaaS solution uses Big Data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning for reliable, early, and accurate breast cancer screening. The company also holds several US patents.



Updates from around the world