Women can now detect cervical cancer at home thanks to Pragmatech Solutions
CERVICHECK is a self sampling and screening kit which can be used by women in the comfort of their homes to detect precancerous lesions.
Wednesday April 12, 2023,
6 min Read
Anirban Palit got an opportunity to explore the world of diagnostics up close when he worked at Roche Diagnostics, a global pharmaceutical company. As their zonal head, Anirban saw the new diagnostic systems entering the Indian market, and the change it could create on public health. What struck him was the aftermath of implementing the systems - the impact a positive diagnostic test can have on treatment and people. “So I was also very closely associated with this diagnostic environment,” he reminisced. Whenever I woke up in the morning, the primary goal of seeing this change was a huge motivation.”
While handling the human papillomavirus (HPV) portfolio at Roche, Anirban came across the story of a 45-year-old domestic worker who lost her life to cervical cancer, leaving behind two small children. The event turned out to be a catalysing factor in the start of a brand new chapter in Anirban’s life. On studying the case, he realised that while there are HPV tests available in the market, adoption and access to such tests is minimal.
Large global MNCs usually tend to sell their diagnostic systems to global markets, so their offerings are tailored towards developed countries, overlooking nations like India. Alongside this, Anirban also noticed that women in India tend to be a bit hesitant to get tested.
Gynecologists usually conduct cervical cancer sampling through the Papanicolaou test, or the pap test where samples from the cervix are collected through a pelvic examination. The process can be distressing and uncomfortable, as a result of which it prevents many women from getting tested.
When it comes to cervical screening, the government routinely organises camps in rural areas. A test called Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) is usually conducted in rural areas. In this process, acetic acid mixture is applied to the cervix. After one minute of its application, an Asha worker assesses the way the cervical area responds to the solution through visual inspection and uses these findings to interpret the results regarding the presence of precancerous lesions and early cancer. The test isn’t always reliable because it depends on an ASHA worker or healthcare provider to look for lesions manually. Apart from the test, women are reluctant to go for screening because there isn’t one point of care solution. The camp collects a woman’s samples and checks them. And if they notice a problem, the woman is called back. “But it's very difficult for these women to come back for repeat diagnosis and further treatment. So you're solving only one part of the problem by conducting camps,” he explained.
Anirban knew that he had to counter both problems - sampling as well as a point of care testing solution. He noted this problem could be solved by adoption and access. And so, he set out to bridge this gap with a unique kit that makes sampling accessible, and enables point of care screening.
Accessible sampling and point of care screening
After a decade with Roche, Anirban decided to launch Pragmatech Healthcare Solutions in 2019 along with Dr Sayantani Pramanik, a clinical research scientist; Palna Patel, a lawyer by profession; and Dr Bhagirath Modi, a gynecologist with more than 40 years of experience. The company was formed with a focus on developing cost effective products that enable increased access and adoption of healthcare technologies.
Their first product line CERVICHECK is a self sampling and screening kit which can be used by women directly. “Self sampling empowers women to collect their own samples either at home, or at a place of their convenience. It removes the distressing process of the examination,” Anirban shared.
The team is currently developing the cervical screening kit, and it is a point of care solution that can provide accurate results of whether the woman is at risk of developing cervical cancer. In cervical cancer cases, precancerous lesions can exist from five to 15 years before turning cancerous. If detected immediately, it can save lives. The procedure for removing these lesions is inexpensive and affordable. And this is what the CERVICHECK Screening Kit aims to solve. Like the sampling kit, the screening kit can be administered by a non-expert, including the woman herself.
Like most startups launching a new product, Pragmatech had to pass through regulatory pathways that have been well defined by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO). “If we did not get the initial support from incubators and the investment fraternity, we could not have actually crossed the stage. Having said that, it is due to these directives that our product is performing according to the rules and regulations. And it is also a way to show other investors that we are very committed to getting our product into the market,” added Anirban.
Currently, Pragmatech is gearing up to take their CERVICHECK sampling kit to the market. With their self sampling kit, they aim to target the urban and rural market and are in talks with lab owners. Alongside this, they are also planning to talk to organisations that conduct health camps in cities. “We are also talking to women directly through awareness programmes and social media campaigns. We'll also be focused upon providing information to key opinion leaders in the sector to amplify our voice so that it not only reaches the clinicians but also the women,” Anirban said.
While Pragmatech is still working on their screening kits, they plan to take it to the rural population through government screening camps and replace VIA with a more reliable tool.
Anirban also wants to eventually combine their CERVICHECK self sampling kit along with the screening solution as a package for the market. At a later stage, they are also looking at offering the solution as a Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) product so that women can purchase it directly from their health and wellness website, get the kit at home, collect their samples and send it to a lab for testing.
With CERVICHECK, the team is empowering women to test themselves and reduce the risk of developing cervical cancer, which in turn enables them to access treatment at the right time. This treatment is inexpensive and effective at early stages. “We are working towards a future where pre-cancerous lesions can be caught on time as opposed to women developing cancer and then going for treatment. With CERVICHECK, we are not just preventing deaths, but we are also preventing the burden that a woman and her loved ones face when cancer is detected,” Anirban said.
Pragmatech Healthcare Solutions is one of the winners of the Pfizer INDovation Program, which was launched by Pfizer and Social Alpha to accelerate the journey of promising medtech startups into the market. “We've been supported by a lot of grants and awards, the latest being the Pfizer INDovation grant that actually came in at a very important time. So this is a stage where we are trying to launch our CERVICHECK kit, the self-sampling kit, and we're at the final stages of validating the screening kit. Had the program not recognised such a low cost innovation at this level, it would be very difficult for us to cross this debt valley and get into the market,” Anirban explained.