A three-member team of NIT, Tiruchirappalli, comes up with an innovative and affordable solution for the early detection of lung cancer.By Anila Mathew
India, the land where the mathematical zero was invented, is no stranger to innovation. And yet, in this day and age of learning by rote and a turgid academic system that follows a cookie-cutter approach, there are fewer and fewer innovators coming out of even the most prestigious of academic institutions. This is why an innovation by students in the notoriously difficult field of oncology is to be lauded.
A three-member team of the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli (NITT), came up with a product that helps in the early detection of lung cancer in the 2017 Texas Instruments India Innovation Challenge Design Contest. The contest was open to all Indian engineering students pursuing undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degrees, and aims at helping inventive scholars achieve their potential. Engineers who have original ideas are given an opportunity to contribute to making India an innovation hub and to strengthen the Make in India Programme through cutting-edge research. Anchored by the N S Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL), a wing of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB), and supported by MyGov, the contest saw the research efforts of many talented students from across the nation.
One of the 33 college teams that made it to the semifinals last year was the NITT team that included Geerthy T, P Rama Surekha and Vishal Kumar Upadhyay. Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancers and is a major cause of cancer-related deaths globally. It accounts for 19% deaths due to cancer worldwide. In India, lung cancer constitutes 6.9% of all new cancer cases and 9.3% of all cancer-related deaths across both sexes.
VOCs exhaled by humans are considered to be a valuable source of information about the condition of the body because exhaled breath is the re-emission of the inhaled air after the subtraction of the oxygen that is necessary for life.
As in the case of most tumors, early detection of lung cancer is extremely vital. A timely and accurate diagnosis can prevent deaths as proper treatment and medication is administered at the right time. As researcher Geerthy T explains, “If lung cancer is detected at later stages, the chance of succumbing to it in five years is 85 percent.” However, presently, lung cancer detection tests are expensive and can cost up to Rs 50,000. It is in this context that the innovative and affordable product is set to bring about a major change. The students explain the working of their unique invention that detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like toluene, alcohols and carbon monoxide, which indicate the presence of lung cancer in exhaled breath.
VOCs exhaled by humans are considered to be a valuable source of information about the condition of the body because exhaled breath is the re-emission of the inhaled air after the subtraction of the oxygen that is necessary for life. Exhaled air is further enriched by compounds captured at the tissue-air interface all along the respiratory tract. Since most of the compounds are metabolic products, the exhaled breath may contain footprints of cellular activities. In the case of lung cancer, they would have a particular footprint that would aid in easy identification of the disease.
Research supervisor and mentor Dr. G Uma, professor at the Department of Instrumentation and Control Engineering, NITT, says, “We have applied for the patenting process and we are awaiting a positive outcome before we reveal more details about this product.” The novel product that will be priced at only a few thousand rupees could bring down the cost of detection greatly, thus helping prevent deaths due to the deadly illness.