This article is part of Jmore’s “Innovation in Health Care” special section.
As a native of India, Dr. Saraswati Sukumar has witnessed firsthand how difficult it can be for women in the developing world to gain timely access to medical care. As a professor of oncology and pathology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, she also knows well how timely detection is critical in the fight against breast cancer.
Put these two salient facts together and it’s easy to understand how Dr. Sukumar arrived at her latest breakthrough. She and her team have developed a fast, effective, low-cost and self-administered means of verifying whether suspect breast tissue is cancerous. This could be a game-changer for millions of women living in Africa, Asia and Latin America who otherwise lack access to timely diagnostics.
Dr. Sukumar will be among the speakers at this year’s “A Woman’s Journey,” the annual health conference for women presented by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the six-hour “A Woman’s Journey” will be held on Nov. 23 at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel.
How did you start working in the field of breast cancer research?
It began when I was working on my Ph.D. and later during a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. This was a topic that was not very much investigated during those days, and yet there were so many women suffering from breast cancer.
I feel we have come a long way since then. In fact, we are ahead of most other cancers in terms of improving the lives of the women who suffer from it. And we are also paying attention to how to prevent it.
How have you approached the challenge of early detection?
We focused on a gene change called methylation, which happens very early in the development of breast cancer. This causes certain genes to be silenced, so we look for those genetic changes. The doctor basically takes a fine needle and collects a few cells from a lump in the breast that the woman may feel, or from a lump that the mammography has revealed. That needle biopsy is then processed in a little cartridge, and basically within five hours it tells you whether it is cancer or whether it is benign.
Who stands to benefit from this test?
You can imagine that this test will not gain much popularity in a country like ours where we have pathologists who can screen for cancer very effectively. But in underdeveloped countries, there are people who have no recourse to a pathologist for hundreds of miles around. It may take a month or even several months for the pathology results to come back in different, remote parts of the world.
How close are you to actually bringing this to market?
Our first paper describing this device just came out in July and that really sets the stage for our next piece of work, which is a clinical trial at Hopkins. We need to show without a shadow of a doubt that the test works. After the results of this particular study come out, we will be able to say with even more confidence as to what the accuracy of the test is.
I am very confident that the test will be ready for prime time in the next two or three years. And the reason I say that is that right now, we have tested close to 20 specimens from this clinical trial and they were correct 100 percent of the time. This is so unusual that the [pathologist’s] eyes literally bugged out.
But we have to do these tests very vigorously in order to be sure that in the long run it will continue to be useful to women in these underdeveloped countries.
As someone who grew up in India, what does this work mean to you personally?
Because I come from India, I felt that I needed to give back to the poor parts of this world. My work has to make an impact in these areas of the world.
Look, 99 percent of the time that lump in the breast is benign. But in places where resources are scarce, that one person who does have a tumor needs to get attention first. We understand that we will not be able to eradicate this disease, but we can delay it taking over your body. We can extend life by another six months and then by another six months. The fight against breast cancer is a fight against time.
For information, visit hopkinsmedicine.org/awomansjourney.
Adam Stone is an Annapolis-based freelance writer.