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The Smartphone That Catches Cancer


After viewing "shocking" biopsy slides at a rural clinic in India, Stanford professor Manu Prakash decided he had to do something.

According to Apple's (AAPL) App Store, smartphone users have made Angry Birds the "No. 1 iPhone paid app" in the US, UK, Canada, Italy, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Singapore, Poland, France, Netherlands, Greece, Austria, Australia, Turkey, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium, Norway, Hungary, Malaysia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Czech Republic, Spain, Ireland, Romania, New Zealand, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Nicaragua, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Mauritius, Chile, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Taiwan, Colombia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Kenya, Macedonia, Croatia, Macau, Paraguay, Peru, Armenia, Philippines, Vietnam, Jordan, Kuwait and Malta.

While vaporizing digital swine on one's mobile device certainly has its place in the world, Stanford University bioengineering professor Manu Prakash, PhD, has invented the OScan, a smartphone tool poised to catch thousands of cancer cases before they turn deadly.

"Oral cancer is easy to handle at the early stages, but impossible to handle later on," Prakash tells me. "So, our approach has been, 'How do you get to a point where you can connect with patients at the very beginning?'"

Connecting with patients is an admittedly tough task in a country like India, which has, in certain areas, one dentist per 250,000 people -- one reason why 40% of all cancer-related deaths in India are oral and account for 86% of the oral cancer figures across the world.

But, the near-ubiquity of iPhones, Android (GOOG) devices, and other assorted appliances from Motorola (MMI), Nokia (NOK), et al, could prove a godsend.

Counterbalancing the dearth of Indian dentists is near-saturation of the mobile market, with the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) predicting near-100% mobile penetration by 2015.

While on vacation, Prakash stopped by a rural clinic in Sevagram, India, where he viewed a "shocking" series of oral cancer biopsy slides. After learning that two-thirds of all patients had arrived too late for treatment, Prakash began developing the OScan.

The OScan, which will cost "no more than a few dollars," is about the size of a pack of gum and attaches to a phone's built-in camera. It uses fluorescent LEDs to detect malignant lesions in patients' mouths. The resulting images can then be transmitted wirelessly anywhere in the world for diagnosis.

Steve Fisch

The prevalence of oral cancer in India goes beyond a simple lack of dental care. Gutka is a "popular, indigenous form of smokeless tobacco in South and Southeast Asia. It is flavored with spices and sweeteners, and sold cheaply in thousands of shops and kiosks," where, as Stanford's Kris Newby explains, it is "often marketed in child-friendly packaging as mouth freshener or gum."

Gutka is also mixed with "abrasive chunks of areca nut, and this accelerates the negative effects of nicotine and cancer-causing chemicals."

Retailing for approximately $0.02 per packet, gutka is available to literally anyone.

"I have seen many children who started chewing gutka when they were 8 or 10 years old and got cancer in their teens," a doctor in Mumbai told Bloomberg in 2010.

This is something Prakash has seen first-hand.

"I grew up with gutka," Prakash says. "But no one ever told us in school that it is bad. Nobody ever talked about the consequences."

Unfortunately, some still see the consequences as easily defeated. As a commenter wrote on the Times of India website:

ROCKY (Mumbai)
11 Aug, 2011 08:59 PM

The only remedy against cancer of any form is lemon juice..drink concentrated fresh lemon juice 1/2 glass... 3 to 5 times a day ... and your cancer will be cured in weeks if not months.

Naturally, gutka manufacturers downplay any link between their product and oral cancer.

Rajendra Malu, owner of the "Jhee" brand of gutka, insisted, "I have been chewing tobacco for the last 37 years and I am not suffering from anything."

Last week, Manu Prakash and his team -- which includes first-year bioengineering graduate student James Clements, medical student Dhruv Boddupalli and Cupertino High School student Aditya Gande -- were awarded $250,000 by the Vodafone (VOD) Americas Foundation and the mHealth Alliance for the OScan.

"Now we will go from field trials to a business model," Prakash says. "We are very excited about it."
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