Detecting lung cancer, among the deadliest of cancers, is fraught with expense, false positives, and a test that can itself cause cancer through radiation exposure. The MIT $100K Accelerate winners this year aim to make it cheaper, more accurate, and safer.
Astraeus Technologies won both the $10,000 Danny Lewin Grand Prize and the $3,000 Founders.org Audience Choice Prize Feb. 10 with a device, the L-Card, that can detect lung cancer through a single breath.
“Part of the reason lung cancer is so deadly is that the majority of cases are diagnosed after the cancer has already spread,” said Graham Lieberman, one of four co-founders. “The gold standard in screening, the low-dose CT scan, is wholly inadequate. There are 94 million Americans at risk for lung cancer, but given the risk and cost inherent to the tests themselves, it’s only cost effective to screen nine million of them each year. Because CT scans are expensive and uncomfortable, only 1.6 million are actually screened.”
CT scans cost $800, have a false positive rate of 96 percent, and, Lieberman said, cause cancer in as many as 1 in 5,000 patients due to radiation exposure.
The L-Card, slightly larger than a postage stamp, detects chemicals in human breath. The card is then read by a smart phone application that indicates high levels of cancer indicators. The team demonstrated the device by squirting a syringe of gases onto the card, causing a smart phone to flash “excessive levels” immediately.
The Astraeus team said the single-use cards can be manufactured for about $1, and may be as much as 10 times more accurate than CT scans. They are currently exploring FDA approval. The group aims to make the test available in doctors’ offices and, eventually, to apply similar technology to early testing for a host of ailments.
Aestraeus’s technology began with a 2014 proof of concept paper co-authored by MIT PhD candidate Joseph Azzarelli and three others about chemical sensing through smartphones. The company, however, was formed just prior to the $100K Accelerate application due date, after Alex Blair, a Harvard MD candidate, frustrated with the inadequacies of computerized tomography scans, Googled the terms “lung cancer,” “MIT,” and “technology” last October. Azzarelli’s paper was the first result, and emails and conversation began quickly.
Just weeks later, four founders launched Astraeus: Azzarelli, Blair, Jay Kumar and Lieberman, both Harvard MD and MBA candidates. Together, their expertise spans medicine, chemistry, medical devices, and management. They named their company for the Greek god Astraeus, “father of the four winds” to symbolize both their breath-based approach to cancer screening and their coming together from different regions in the United States so quickly.
The night’s $3,000 second prize went to Safi Organics, led by Kevin Kang, an MIT PhD candidate, which seeks to reduce organic waste in farming by buying the farm waste in developing countries that is usually burned to make way for the next season’s planting. Safi Organics uses the material to produce a carbon-negative fertilizer to increase farmers’ yields.
Accelerate is the second of three annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition events. The $100,000 grand prize is given at the Launch competition in May. Twenty semi-finalist teams were selected from 150 applications for Accelerate. The groups spent the MIT Independent Activities Period honing their ideas through mentorship, target customer outreach, and prototype development. Eight finalists are chosen during closed-door judging prior to the public presentation of five-minute pitches before a panel of judges.