This diagnostics startup helps screen patients for oral cancer risk with a painless, 10-minute test

Nagpur-based diagnostics startup Erlysign’s first test kit, an easy and quick way to screen for oral cancer through a saliva sample, is undergoing clinical trials. The startup, which recently raised seed funding, aims to offer more solutions for early-stage detection of multiple cancers.
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Building products wasn’t a challenge for 29-year-old Shubhendra Singh Thakur. While at college, he had built JOLT, a safety wearable for women; Frosty, a personal cooling device; and Tellon , a campus networking application that aimed to connect every college, school, and educational institute. 

His decision to build Erlysign after he graduated, however, stemmed from a personal experience.  

The Nagpur-based biotechnology startup is developing the next generation of early-stage diagnostics solutions and medical devices for early detection of multiple cancers. This is done in a non-invasive and painless manner, using saliva.

Erlysign recently raised seed funding from LetsVenture and LV Angel Syndicate, a US-based medical oncology specialist, and Rajesh Manthena, Executive Director of Cancer Centers of America. 

The test kit, an easy-to-use and quicker way to screen for oral cancer through a saliva sample, has been validated by experts of American Oncology, HCG, and US-based oncologists. It is now under large-scale randomised clinical trials (involving 1,000 patient samples) in collaboration with HCG, South East Asia’s largest cancer care network.

The Erlysign kit

The genesis 

Shubhendra says the seeds of the startup were sown after he witnessed the problem first hand. 

“My mother was detected with end-stage renal failure in September 2017 and doctors told us that only way she could survive was either through transplant or dialysis. It was a big shock. In Nagpur, a transplant costs Rs 8-12 lakh, which was impossible for us to arrange. At hospitals, on speaking to patients, I found out that even with dialysis patients often do not survive more than five years,” he recalls. 

During this time, Shubhendra encountered oral cancer patients at Tukdoji Cancer Hospital in Nagpur. It occurred to him that diseases are not the problem; the difficulty is not getting timely diagnosis. 

He decided to begin working on a kit for early detection of kidney disease by testing urine. His work on the CUROPAL App and CUROSTIX kit took him back to college where he met Dr Deovrat Bedge, M.Sc., Ph.D. Biochemistry, a professor at the same college.

“We discussed the possibility of painless early detection of oral cancer through saliva and, to my surprise, his expertise was in that field (protein biomarkers). We started work on the kit, now India’s first biomarker-based early detection kit for oral cancer detection through saliva,” he says. 

The duo started research in 2018 and formally established Erlysign in August 2019. 

How does it work?

The diagnostics startup follows a B2B model, with doctors and hospitals buying kits. How does it help doctors and patients? Medical experts usually examine a patient and don’t opt for a biopsy if there is no visible tumour or lesion. In such a case, they will not know if cancerous growth has started. 

“Our quick test gives results on precancerous conditions even before a visible tumour or lesion appears in the oral cavity and throat or the lip and tongue. Based on those results, further diagnosis and medication can be started,” Shubhendra says. 

Unnecessary biopsies can also affect a doctor's credibility and cause a patient mental, physical, and financial trouble. 

“Our solution ensures doctors will never have to risk their credibility and trust among patients because a biopsy will only be done once our test shows there is a need for further diagnosis. Patients agree to this easy, painless testing procedure without thinking twice,” he adds. 

The user can take the test at home or walk into a clinic/hospital, submit their saliva sample, and can get the results within 15 minutes.

A 2-5 ml saliva sample is required for the test, which checks for active protein biomarkers that are released into the saliva as soon as the extracellular matrix starts to degenerate and is 100 percent specific. The sensitivity is 20 ng/ml and the test kit quantifies the risk (low, moderate, high). 

Apart from early detection, Shubhendra says the kit is also helpful to oncologists and oral surgeons to monitor post-operative patients. 

Market and the future

Numerous startups in India are operating in the preventive healthcare space. 

Niramai is looking closely at testing and no-intrusive methods of cancer detection. Qure.AI uses AI to look at serious diseases such as heart ailments, and cancer. The segment already has several global players like Instiro, Relay Therapeutics, Roivant Sciences, DeepCure, and Genome Bilogicals. 

The five-member Erlysign team has filed for Indian and US patents, and aims to have more patents by 2026

Shubhendara says the closest goal is set for 2023, By this time, the team wants to launch two more early detection test kits for lung (adenocarcinoma) and breast cancer. 

“In 10 years, we want Erlysign to be the one-stop solution for all prognostic and diagnostic needs in the field of cancer. We want to create a whole new gold standard in cancer diagnostics and replace traditional biopsies with CRISPR-based diagnostics. So, in 10 years we want to save 10 million lives by detecting cancer EARLY,” he says. 

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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