Cervical cancer is the third most common cancer among women and the second most frequent cause of cancer-related deaths for women worldwide. While cervical cancer is a preventable and treatable disease, one woman in the world dies from it every two minutes. How is this possible?
“Geography plays an important role in cervical cancer incidence and death rates,” says Hector Torres, cofounder and CEO of Onko Solutions, a company that develops technology to the detect and prevent cervical cancer. “Cervical cancer is more common in Latin America and Africa, where more than 80% of cases occur, mainly due to limited access to cervical cancer screening.” According to Mexico’s National Institute of Cancerology, a woman dies from cervical cancer every two hours in this country.
“If caught at an early stage, cervical cancer can be treated, and nine out of ten women fully recover with relatively simple treatment,” adds Mr. Torres. “In many instances, however, the lesion is not detected until it’s too late and nothing can be done. The loss of a woman’s life is devastating in itself, and more so when it fractures couples, families and young children along the way.”
The predominant screening method for cervical cancer is a pap smear. During this test, a doctor swabs the patient’s cervical surface to collect cells that are then examined on a pathology laboratory by a cytotechnologist using costly, specialized equipment. If an abnormality is found, a cytopathologist verifies the interpretation. The Pap test has not been effective in developing economies not only because of its shortcomings, but also due to the lack of infrastructure and highly-trained personnel needed to perform it.
Not only is a pap smear intrusive, expensive and lengthy -it may take up to three weeks to get the results- it is also fallible. The rate of false negatives and false positives is alarmingly high, in some instances reaching nearly 60%.
This is where Onko Solutions comes in. Onko Solutions has developed a portable medical device that easily fits into a technician’s hand for effective, reliable, fast and non-invasive cervical cancer screening. Unlike Pap smears, it does not require laboratory analysis, a tissue sample or human interpretation. The device provides minimally-invasive screening with instantaneous results, eliminating costly, painful and unnecessary lab work.
“Our device uses intelligent systems based on neural networks and support vector machines, including optical spectroscopy and electrical impedance,” Torres says of the technology. “Our technology provides immediate results thanks to the use of artificial intelligence to improve the collection, dissemination and visualization of results during the screening of cancerous cells in-vivo.”
The company’s technology has proven to be more accurate than Pap smears. Such was the case of Alejandra Torres, a woman in Monterrey, Mexico, who kept getting false negatives year after year during her annual checkup. It was not until she was screened with Onko’s medical device that a lesion was detected and treatment immediately started.
Onko understands the importance of both accurate cervical screening and access to it. Bolstered by this understanding, the company is involved in several campaigns to bring its technology to underdeveloped areas where cervical screening is not available. Earlier this year, Onko made its technology available in Tlaxcala to provide cervical screening to more than two hundred women, many of which had never been screened for cervical cancer before. The company is carrying out similar campaigns in marginalized public hospitals in Mexico City and surrounding areas.
Cervical cancer is a threat to women regardless of their geographical, ethnic or socioeconomic background. Onko strives to transform women’s lives with reliable solutions that offer immediate results and that are affordable and accessible to everyone and make cervical cancer a thing of the past.
Promotora Social México (PSM), an ANDE member, is a venture philanthropy organization, whose goal is to positively impact the development and well-being of Mexicans and to improve the quality of life of the most vulnerable through investments in sustainable social businesses in the education, healthcare and economic development sectors. PSM believes in Onko's vision to improve the access, quality, and effectiveness of cervical cancer tests. Additionally, PSM actively participates in the company's board of directors and with the management team to create and forge strategic relationships, both in the public and private sectors, and to help guide the path to scale the business and fulfill its vision.