In India, cancer is the most common cause of death in adults. While cancer can affect any part of the body, oral cancer is among the top three common types in the country.
A disease already so formidable and common, the awareness and prevention still have not made much difference. And this is what irked Subhendra Singh Thakur and Dr. Deovrat Begde so much in their formative years.
Oral cancer is majorly caused by tobacco and other such narcotics but can also be due to poor oral hygiene. Studies find that these factors are linked to low economic status, which leads to poor nutrition, hygiene, and a greater likelihood of drug abuse.
It is a terrible fact then, that oral cancer treatment is usually very expensive, making it inaccessible to the people who need it most.
Having this in mind, Dr. Begde and Thakur started R&D in 2018 and finally created ErlySign in 2020. The Nagpur-based biotech startup is working on the next generation of early-stage economic diagnostics tools and medical equipment. Their cancer-preventive diagnostic kit offers a non-invasive and painless diagnosis of different malignancies using saliva.
The Beginning of The Solution
Thakur had always been a whiz with machines, building many interesting gadgets during his engineering days, but the decision to turn to the healthcare industry was personal.
His mother was diagnosed with a kidney complication that made them shrink, and doctors told them that a transplant or continued dialysis was the only way to go. Thakur recalls the days of pain and unaffordability that came with it.
He realized something between seeing his mother slowly fall into depression as she thought of herself as a burden and filling forms and huge bills himself. “Prevention is better than cure,” as the old saying goes, was never more relevant!
As he spent a lot of time in the hospital, he went around observing oral cancer patients and their hopelessness. He realized that a proper and affordable diagnosis would change this painful scenario of cancer healthcare.
He started developing a urine-testing kit for the early identification of a renal illness. Back at his college, where he was famous for building things, he met Dr. Begde, a biochemistry professor. Together, they embarked on the journey that ErlySign is today.
What Does Erly Sign Do?
ErlySign’s semi-quantitative test kit uses saliva to look for active biomarkers (of cancer). These biomarkers are released into the saliva when the ECM (Extra Cellular Matrix) begins to deteriorate, which results in pre-cancer and later OSCC (a form of oral malignancy).
The ErlySign test kit measures cancer risk on a scale of Low-Moderate-High and takes only 10 minutes to complete.
ErlySign is unique because the kit looks for biochemicals secreted in the saliva rather than a tumor or lesion that will develop later. Founders feel that there is no need to wait until it is too late; when it can be identified early and treated at a lower cost than ever before. This also reduces the risk of metastasis, i.e., the spread of cancer cells from one body part to another.
Some other key features of the kit include:
- The test only takes 10-15 minutes and requires a 2-5 ml saliva sample.
- The test is 100% specific for active protein biomarkers and has a sensitivity of 20 ng/ml.
- The user may do the test at their convenience, at home or hospital. They only need to provide a saliva sample and receive results in 15 minutes.
- It is highly beneficial to doctors not only for periodic assessments but also for monitoring post-operative patients and determining whether the prescribed treatment choices and medicines are helping the patients.
ErlySign has a B2B model; it provides these kits to hospitals and other medical practitioners. It’s a great tool for healthcare workers to use when deciding if a suspected patient needs a diagnostic procedure like a biopsy or a PET scan, or whether simple dietary/lifestyle changes and medicines will suffice at the current stage.
The Team Behind It
Dr. Deovrat Begde and Shubh met in the year 2018 while working on the kit for early-stage kidney disease detection. Later on, they became co-founders for CURO Biosciences. They are currently 6 members in the team and all of the research and core team members belong from the same college in Nagpur.
The research team comprised of 2 researchers Pooja and Arti who have done MSc in Biochemistry and were a student of Dr. Deovrat and they had the experience of working in some reputed healthcare institutions in Nagpur and also CSIR-NEERI.
So Dr. Deovrat found them to be the best fit for the company.
Erly Sign needed people who get driven by the fact that they are building something that has the potential to save a million lives.
1) Dr. Deovrat Begde, Co-founder & Chief Scientific Officer, 39yrs,
M.Sc., Ph.D. Biochemistry.
He is a technically proficient researcher with more than 15 years of research and teaching experience. He is very well versed in both Biochemistry and Biotechnology.
Dr. Begde has to his credit an Indian National Patent for developing a methodology for extraction of value-added products from Eggshell waste (March 2010) and more than 25, well-cited, research articles published in Scientific Journals of National and International Repute with modest impact factor.
He is also a recipient of the Young Investigator Award from Protein Society, Boston, USA, and has presented his research findings at prestigious scientific meetings viz. at Wellcome Collection, London, The University of Strathclyde Technology and Innovation Centre, Glasgow, UK, and Symposium of Protein Society, Barcelona, Spain to highlight a few.
2) Shubhendra Singh Thakur, Co-founder & CEO, 29yrs
Bachelors in Biology, Specialization in Clinical Trials
Before starting Curo Biosciences, have worked on many revolutionary solutions which include innovative products like “JOLT”, a safety wearable for women to deter miscreants, and another wearable called “Frosty”, a personal cooling device.
In the year 2017 launched “Tellon” which was a campus networking application intended to connect every college, school and educational institution through a deep network. The app got recognized by Facebook in its FbStart Program as the world’s youngest app-based startup from India.
Have been felicitated by VIA & Lemon School of Entrepreneurship in the year 2018 and was nominated for the 2019 Rex Karamaveer Chakra Award & Karmaveer Global Fellowship instituted by ICONGO and the United Nations. Nominated for Nagpur Heroes Award.
He has also served in the Red light area of Nagpur for raising awareness among sex workers on Oral cancer and Chronic kidney disease. Developed a home-based urine test for detecting CKD.
3) Pooja Awasthi, Senior Research & Testing Associate, 27
MSc in Biochemistry, Certificate courses on cancer biology.
She has hands-on experience with various Biotech, Biochem techniques. Worked as a Research Assistant in a reputed Healthcare institute in Nagpur.
4) Arti Payasi, Senior Research & Testing Associate, 26
MSc. in Biochemistry,
She is a Gold Medalist in Biochemistry and recipient of the Academic Excellence Award. She did her dissertation on “Quantification of Phage-Host Infection using Burst Size Assay” at CSIR-NEERI, Nagpur.
Apart from that, she has also worked as a Contributory lecturer at one of the renowned Institutions in Nagpur from Sep 2018 – April 2019. She has good knowledge of Molecular Biology techniques, Chromatography, Spectrophotometric, PCR, Microbiology technique.
5) Dr. Sunita Bundale, Msc Ph.D. in Microbiology, 52
Dr. Bundale is actively involved in research in microbiology/molecular biology and allied fields and has completed a major research project entitled “PCR Screening of rare Actinomycetes for bioactive compounds” funded by DST, Govt. of India.
She has to her credit more than thirty research papers in national and international journals and a book titled “Basic Microbiology” published by Himalaya Publishing House.
Dr. Bundale is working with international as well as national research collaborators like Dr. Ilya Osterman, Skolkovo Institute of Science & Tech, Moscow, Russia; Dr. Dipshikha Chakravortty, IISc, Bangalore; Dr. Sorokhaibam Laxmi Gayatri, Dept. of Chemistry, VNIT, Nagpur to name a few.
She is a reviewer of many international and national journals like the Journal of Basic Microbiology, Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology, Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences, Asian Journal of Medicine and Health, and British Microbiology Research Journal.
6) Dr. Arpita Parakh, Data Analysis & Interpretation, 32
PHD. in Bioinformatics, M.Tech (Gold Medalist) in Computational Biology from School of Computer Science and Information Technology, Indore.
Dr. Arpita has got a particular interest in performing computational studies on genome-wide large sequence datasets of diverse types like genome and proteome sequences, microarray data analysis, RNA seq data, Chip-seq and protein-protein interaction, and building networks.
Her Work is being carried out in Montpellier, France organized by EMBL (European Molecular Biology laboratory), Presented work in many national and international conferences. Selected for training and workshop held at EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) Heidelberg, Germany.
The Journey So Far
In Thakur’s own words:
“Since our R&D started in 2018, we have come a very long way from an idea to build something in early detection of cancer to a working product widely accepted by renowned oncologists and biotech experts from India and abroad.”
The test has been thoroughly confirmed by American oncology specialists and US-based oncologists. It also has very good feedback from end-users.
ErlySign is conducting large-scale randomized clinical trials in partnership with HCG (Health Care Global Ltd), Southeast Asia’s biggest cancer care network. ErlySign is also a participant in the Anthill Ventures (Singapore) and HCG-led LUMOS Health Accelerator program.
In 2019, the startup received angel funding from a very well-known healthcare investor. Later in 2021, it obtained a seed round from a US-based medical oncology expert, Misys Healthcare Systems (San Francisco), and a number of additional investors from the UAE, Singapore, among other countries.
Erlysign was recently recognized by Global Health & Pharma News as the Best Early Stage Cancer Detection Startup 2021 in the Technology Awards. BARC Asia has named it Asia’s one of the most prestigious growing brands for 2021-22. Best Startup Asia named ErlySign the best medical device firm in India.
Changing The Face of Cancer Diagnosis
According to Thakur, the earliest objective is to release two more early detection test kits for lung (adenocarcinoma) and breast cancer by 2023.
“We plan to become the first company from India to launch a set of completely validated early detection kits for oral, lung, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer all through just 5ml of a saliva sample,” he says.
The ErlySign team wants their startup to be a solution for all predictive and diagnostic purposes in the field of cancer within ten years. They aim to replace conventional biopsies with CRISPR-based diagnostics to create a new gold standard in cancer diagnosis. The crucial data obtained by ErlySign’s trials will also be useful in researching and developing precision medicine and individualized cancer therapies.
Therefore, we will hopefully see ErlySign save ten million lives by identifying cancer early in the future. The ErlySign team of currently five people has applied for Indian and US patents to have additional patents by 2026.
ErlySign is evidently a game-changer in the cancer healthcare scene in India. A country where the disease still holds a lot of stigma, mystery, and inefficiency in treatment. Perhaps the idea of stopping cancer before it even begins is the right way to tackle it. According to Dr. Begde, who calls the process “catch them young,” it certainly is so.