India is the best place in the world to do something transformative, two experts working on an ambitious plan to accelerate detection of cancers have said, citing the country’s vast technological resources, its people and an enabling environment.
Speaking at one of the in-person 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 spoke of how their project that marries technology with biosciences could revolutionise cancer care, and India’s role in helping it make a reality.
“I think the American medical system is broken. There are too many impediments. The best place to do something transformative is India, where there is no need to protect a legacy,” said Wadhwa, who is working with Flaherty in Karkinos, a start-up backed by Tata Trusts to focus on oncology.
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The two said that they are bullish on India’s ability to do what is not possible in other nations, especially given the demands of science and data that such a project requires.
“Today, we are catching cancer too late. In India, it is almost always in stage four, when it is too late,” said Wadhwa, explaining the principle behind the approach at Karkinos, which aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) based technologies to better look for biological indicators of when someone may have the disease.
Wadhwa, who focuses on future technologies as a public speaker and advisor to policymakers, said he shifted focus to oncology after losing his wife to cancer. “We came up with a grand plan. What was the grand plan? It was to get all the data and bio samples we need,” he said, explaining this as crucial to erect a new – quicker and cheaper – way to detect malignancy taking hold in the body.
“We are at a point right now where we have methods to detect signs of cancer. But even those are not entirely diagnostics,” said Flaherty, adding that methods such as genome sequencing are not applied at scale to screening methods, especially in poorer parts of the world.
““It’s truly the most complex of human disease but that technology (genome sequencing and protein analysis) has not been applied to bio specimen and not combined with patient data and patient outcome,” said Flaherty.
“The poor cannot afford blood tests in most parts of the world, let alone genetic sequencing. In Harvard, patients get complete genetic sequencing and are treating accordingly,” said Wadhwa..
India, both he and Flaherty said, presented an opportunity to have at-scale access to such data, which can then be used to train the AI-based technology to improve on finding cancer clues sooner and through less complex methods, like the blood. “We need hundreds of thousands of samples. Guess what? India has all the data and the need and the scientists,” said Wadhwa.
A key component of their support came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly, both said. “We were amazed at how within moments, Modi and I were talking like we were friends. I told him that we could put together Karkinos together only because of his support,” Wadhwa said.
“We were told we will get 15 minutes if we were lucky since the PM is a busy man. But we got 50 minutes. He was directing the conversation, probing the areas and really looking around the corner on where this is all headed. By the time we got to the later parts of the conversation, it was obvious to him and us that what we were talking about was not about closing a gap, not only about catching India up, but to slingshot,” Flaherty added.
The two were effusive in their praise for the work ethics in the Indian workforce they saw. Wadhwa, an Indian-American, said he had decided to make India the base since Silicon Valley “has become too arrogant”.
“Entrepreneurs, scientists and doctors in India have a disorienting sense of humility. It’s disorienting for a westerner because humility is not a cultural norm,” Flaherty added.
“I just have one important point to make. India can drive a diagnostic revolution on its own. But where we need partnership is in therapeutics. Access to therapeutics in India is a major problem. So I appeal to partners, biotech companies, large pharma companies, therapeutics developers to see the opportunity to help the entire world through this enterprise,” he said.
It is such collaboration, he added, that will set an example for the world in revolutionising care, he added.