Verna, Goa: After expanding India’s RT-PCR testing capacity during Covid with its portable TrueNat machines, Goa-based Molbio Diagnostics Private Limited is developing AI solutions to bring next-generation genome sequencing, cancer screening, and complete blood profile tests at an affordable cost across the country.
In an interview to ThePrint, Sriram Natarajan, founding director of Molbio Diagnostics, said that in the post-Covid world, the company is working on several projects that aim to make high-quality diagnostics available to underserved parts of the country via mobile clinics and at cost-effective price points.
“So far, we have been a molecular diagnostics company, just giving point-of-care molecular solutions. For Covid, we were one of the main providers of the point-of-care testing solutions.” Natarajan said.
“The vision of the company is to serve the underserved population with as many high-tech solutions as possible that can be used at the point of contact,” he added.
Molbio’s claim to fame is its flagship product, the TrueNat diagnostic platform, which made RT-PCR tests for Covid possible with minimal infrastructure.
The lunchbox-sized device was originally designed to test for tuberculosis, but was adapted to test for Covid during the pandemic. Since then, the menu of TrueNat tests has expanded to include 30 tests for infectious diseases.
Now, however, the company wants to move towards providing complete mobile diagnostic solutions, spanning the gamut from infectious diseases to screening for non-communicable illnesses.
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Making screening for cancer, diabetes easier
One of the reasons for India’s high healthcare burden is that many people do not seek treatment until they are already in an advanced state of disease.
“Most of the population living in rural, underserved areas do not even know that they are diabetic because they never had an opportunity to test,” Natarajan said. The same goes for cancer, he added.
“Today, what happens is that most people have to travel long distances, which takes up time and resources. So, the health-seeking behaviour is they go to a centre only if they are really sick,” Natarajan explained.
“For normal ailments, they don’t bother because it’s too much of a pain for them. Because of this, the treatment process gets delayed, then the complications can be very severe even for diseases that are treatable,” he added.
The idea now, said Natarajan, is to take point-of-care diagnostics to non-communicable diseases by looking at chemical markers of such diseases.
While the TrueNat platform itself can be adapted to screen for cancer markers, the company is also working on other technologies that can, in the future, be used to equip e-clinics that can operate in remote locations. “These will have the full capability to test for all sorts of diseases,” Natarajan said.
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AI-driven blood profiling, genome sequencing
One of the technologies that the company is working on is an AI-driven complete blood count (CBC), also known as a full blood count.
CBC is a set of medical laboratory tests that provides information about the cells in a person’s blood. The CBC indicates the counts of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, and the concentration of haemoglobin.
“Today there is no point-of-care solution for CBC. Either you need big machines which are expensive and cannot be taken to the primary health care centres or you do it manually, where slides are made and trained technicians do a count of the cells,” Natrajan said.
“We are now working on a completely automated CBC solution, where the interpretation will happen through artificial intelligence. And this can be deployed anywhere and would not require trained technicians,” Natarajan said.
The hardware for this technology is ready with Molbio, and the development of the AI solution is near completion.
“This can not only do blood counts, but also look for cancer biomarkers — anything that requires image processing can be carried out with this technology,” Natarajan said.
Another new area for R&D is next generation sequencing (NGS), which offers a faster, more accurate method to sequence genomes on a large scale.
“Today all the NGS machines are big machines. Only central labs can do it, and they are all doing whole genome sequencing. Whole genome sequencing takes a lot of time and is expensive. We are aiming to do target specific sequencing, where we look for antimicrobial resistance,” Natarjan said.
Antibiotic resistance, sometimes described as a ‘silent pandemic‘, has been associated with millions of deaths worldwide. Over time, the overuse of antibiotics has led to many pathogens becoming resistant to them, making it difficult to treat infections.
One way to offset this is for doctors to conduct genome sequencing to identify if there are mutations in a pathogen that makes it resistant to treatment.
“Nowadays, most doctors prescribe antibiotics without knowing if the drug will work. Even otherwise, the sample will have to be cultured in a lab to check its antibiotic resistance,” Natarajan explained.
This, however, can take between three to five days. “You can not wait that long to treat the patient.”
Even whole genome sequencing can be time-consuming.
Instead, Molbio Diagnostics is working on a point-of-care device that uses AI to read a part of the genome to look for mutations that cause resistance to drugs.
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Affordable panel tests
The company is also creating TrueNat-compatible panel tests for 16 infectious diseases with just one sample, at a cost of about Rs 1,000.
“Whenever there are mystery outbreaks in areas like UP or Bihar, there are about four or five diseases that are most likely the cause — dengue, chikungunya, zika, scrub typhus, or Japanese encephalitis. The problem is that there is no mechanism to differentiate between any of these. These are not unknown diseases, [health facilities] simply do not have the infrastructure,” Shiva Sriram, VP, Sales and Marketing, told ThePrint.
A panel test that can simultaneously check for several common infections can help address this. We are planning to launch this product in January, Natarajan said,
“There are panel tests available at a US company, but their machine costs some Rs 60 lakh and tests cost some Rs 10,000 to 14,000. Our panel tests will be available at one tenth the price — probably about Rs 1,000,” he said.
According to Natarajan, these testing facilities will be used to equip mobile clinics that will allow people in remote reaches of the country to access high-tech diagnostics.
Molbio, he added, is working with partners to set up mobile clinics that will be connected to nodal hospitals. “The vans themselves can just operate with a technician and a nurse for taking samples,” he said.
Along with he TrueNat platform to test for infectious diseases and cancer markers, the vans will also be equipped with electrocardiogram (ECG) machines and devices to check for hypertension and blood sugar levels. This will encourage people in rural areas to seek health care at early stages of a disease, Natarajan said.
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)
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