In 2020 alone, about 342,000 women died from cervical cancer, and an estimated 375,000 men died from prostate cancer.

This is despite the fact that these cancers have proven relatively preventable and/or treatable. Wealthy countries, like the U.S., have managed to significantly reduce cervical cancer rates over the past 40 years through sweeping preventative care programs, including mass vaccinations against human papillomavirus (HPV) and regular screenings for cancerous and precancerous lesions (Pap smears). Meanwhile, prostate cancer can be treatable if caught early. The five-year survival rate for men diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer in the U.S. is over 99%.

So why are so many people still suffering and dying from these diseases?

A big part of the problem is that cases are not being caught and accurately diagnosed early enough for treatment to be most effective. This points to challenges with existing diagnostics.

For example, the process for diagnosing prostate cancer often involves multiple rounds of increasingly invasive, uncomfortable, and costly tests. This is, in part, because existing early testing options, such as digital rectal exam, prostate-specific antigen blood tests, and transrectal ultrasound, are often inconclusive. Doctors commonly resort to MRIs, which can cost thousands of dollars, or invasive biopsies to confirm a diagnosis.

In the case of cervical cancer, it’s worth noting that nearly 90% of cervical cancer deaths occur in low-and middle-income countries, where the preventative care interventions that have worked in richer countries are deemed too costly to implement. Instead, affordable diagnostic technologies, like ultrasound, are relied upon to detect and monitor cervical cancer cases. However, that technology comes with drawbacks, such as low imaging contrast and resolution, which can make it difficult to accurately diagnose and stage the disease.

Optave Diagnostics, an Early Charm portfolio firm, recognizes the need for better diagnostic imaging technologies in this field, and is actively working to fill it. The company is developing medical devices that will allow clinicians to more clearly image regions of the body that are traditionally difficult to “see.”

Optave’s technology is licensed from the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and was conceptualized by Dr. Vikram Dogra, director of the Division of Ultrasound at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), and Dr. Navalgund Rao, adjunct professor at URMC and research faculty member at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at RIT. It improves on traditional ultrasound by applying an imaging technique known as photoacoustic imaging. The detected ultrasound signal is generated using an infrared laser pulse, rather than just a soundwave echo, delivering better contrast and resolution. An additional piece of proprietary technology allows the photoacoustic tech to be put into a probe that can reach and image those body parts other technologies can’t easily access.

In early study, Optave’s technology has shown very high sensitivity (true negative rate) and high specificity (true positive rate) for detecting prostate cancer. This sets it apart from many existing diagnostic techniques, which are typically either highly sensitive or specific, but not both. Optave ultimately hopes to displace some of the less accurate, more invasive and more costly testing methods for certain cancers, and even eliminate many unnecessary biopsies.

Optave is fueled by a team of optics experts and medical researchers, several of whom have friends and family members who have been affected by cancer, and are extremely motivated to commercialize a technology that enables more cases of cancer to be caught and treated as early as possible. They are also developing and commercializing the technology with a special focus on affordability, to ensure that rural and underfunded areas of the world will have access to highly accurate diagnostics.

Many of Early Charm’s portfolio companies are developing technologies aimed at improving lives – of scientists, or industry workers, or general consumers. Optave’s technology aims to not only improve lives, but save many of them too.

Author: Morgan Eichensehr
Bio: Morgan Eichensehr is a technical writer for Early Charm. She tells the stories behind the science being done at the venture studio’s portfolio companies.