WA researchers are working with a US partner as they seek to commercialise a local breakthrough in the diagnosis of diabetes-related sight degeneration.
US-based medical provider TeleMedC is in a race against time to launch an innovative diabetes-screening tool developed in Western Australia.
TeleMedC, which licensed the technology developed by CSIRO telehealth research director Yogesan Kanagasingam in 2015, is now facing off with the medical research arm of Google, Verily Life Sciences, which has just applied for FDA approval for a similar concept.
Professor Kanagasingam’s technology combines artificial intelligence with eye-scanning hardware to efficiently detect diabetes-associated sight-loss or impairment via a local GP.
About a third of the 1.3 million Australians with diabetes are expected to experience sight impairment to some degree, and early diagnosis would have a major effect on patient outcomes.
“At the moment only ophthalmologists and optometrists can test for the condition, so patients often sit on waitlists or need to travel long distances to be assessed,” Professor Kanagasingam said.
“This means patients often do not get the test during the early detection window, which can cause irreversible loss of sight.”
Professor Kanagasingam said the current price of the product was about $25,000, which was not affordable for the average GP.
A clinic in Midland is currently the only Australian GP using the technology.
“So what this company (TeleMedC) is doing is, they’ve licensed my invention and are trying to reduce the price to almost $1,000 and give it to GPs and charge per patient for usage,” Professor Kanagasingam said.
The technology is currently being manufactured in the US, but TeleMedC intends to shift manufacturing to China and then assemble the product from WA.
To do so, TeleMedC is aiming to float on the ASX in a bid to raise $10 million, but first is seeking to raise $2 million from private investors to maintain momentum for the Australia-based rollout.
“Unfortunately, we are competing with Google,” Professor Kanagasingam said, which has since developed similar AI technology, without the hardware component.
He said while Verily Life Sciences was primarily focused on R&D planning and AI applications in medicine, it evidently found retinopathy an interesting and worthy topic to pursue.
Although the Google offshoot had the resources to make rapid advances in development, Professor Kanagasingam said he began developing his technology several years ago and was still a couple of steps ahead.
“That’s the advantage (TeleMedC) will have against Google, because Google doesn’t actually have a device yet,” he said.
While TeleMedC waits to raise the capital for an Australia-based rollout, Professor Kanagasingam said Singapore was another major market it would begin targeting.
“In Singapore they have existing infrastructure, so it’s not a problem rolling it out there,” he said.
“Most of the clinics already have the devices (camera hardware) so we are using that to roll out our AI system, but in Australia it is not that easy.”
He said TeleMedC was attracted to WA both because of Professor Kanagasingam’s team and its research, but also because of its proximity to South-East Asia.
“It’s close to Singapore and the region that is extremely high in diabetics; in India there’s about 80 million people with diabetes,” he said.
In its latest funding round, Diabetes Research WA has awarded an $80,000 grant to Professor Kanagasingam to put towards further development of the technology.
Professor Kanagasingam said it was a part of CSIRO’s focus to ensure research translated to real-world practice.
“Most of the time as an academic we try to publish papers and miss out on commercialisation; I still have people asking me questions about why I did not publish first,” he said.
“At CSIRO our main thing is patents, so we can’t publish while we wait for patents, which is more important for commercialisation.”
Professor Kanagasingam’s work with diabetes follows the commercial success of his research into Alzheimer’s disease.
“Out of WA we actually developed the knowledge on how Alzheimer’s is related to a disease in the eye,” he said.
“We then worked towards developing ocular biomarkers for detecting the disease almost 10 to 15 years in advance.
“That brought us a lot of investors from the US investing in WA, about $2 million.”