App levels playing field for cervical cancer screening
This article was originally published in the Queen's Gazette
Cervical cancer is the cause of 1.3 per cent of all new cancers affecting women and 1.1 per cent of female cancer deaths, according to Public Health Agency of Canada statistics.
First Nations, Inuit, and Metis women die from cervical cancer at four times the rate of the general population, driven by lack of access to screening in their communities. The pandemic has only worsened this inequity, and it is urgent to develop strategies to reduce the gaps in access to early diagnosis and treatment strategies.
This is one of the goals Karen Yeates, a clinician scientist in the Faculty of Health Sciences and co-founder of Women’s Health Equity through Mobile Approaches (WEMA Inc.), a not-for-profit corporation based in Kingston.
Dr. Yeates is an expert in global health research with a focus in mobile health implementation and how it can improve access to prevention, detection, and treatment for non-communicable diseases, and access to reproductive health services.
“After working with cervical cancer prevention experts in Tanzania, East Africa, I wanted to develop and evaluate a method using a smartphone that could improve the training and increase scale-up of the cervical cancer screening method currently used in most low-income countries,” she says. “For the last decade, frontline nurses have been trained to visually inspect a cervix after applying vinegar. This method, known as visual inspection under acetic acid (VIA), allows them to visualize a pre-cancerous lesion that, if found early, could be easily treated by applying C02 gas or a thermal ablation probe to it for five minutes.”
One of the first offerings from WEMA was the Smartphone Enhanced Visual Assessment (SEVIA), a platform for a remote physician or expert cervical cancer screening nurse, located in Tanzania or even in another country, to provide guidance and training (peer-decision support) for accurate diagnosis.
“I thought that if we could train the nurses remotely using a smartphone-based program, then we could scale up the program in even the most remote village and this is what we did,” describes Dr. Yeates. SEVIA enables accurate diagnosis and treatment in a woman’s home, thereby eliminating the need for most women to receive more expensive screening services and reducing the need for women travel to clinics that may be a long distance from their home.
After implementing the tool in Tanzania, Yeates has turned her attention to how innovative tools can provide health services for over 2-million Canadian women in rural and remote communities. “As new guidelines for cervical cancer prevention come into play, including primary care-based testing for HPV DNA among women at risk, SEVIA could become a solution for virtual cervical cancer screening for any woman at risk in Ontario, Canada, and most of the world,” says Dr. Yeates.
Audience choice award
Recently, with support from Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation, Dr. Yeates and team participated in the Falcons’ Fortunes pitch competition hosted by FACIT, a commercialization venture firm that builds companies with entrepreneurs to accelerate oncology innovations.
Now in its 9th year, FACIT hosts the annual pitch competition to celebrate Ontario’s life sciences and entrepreneurial culture, as well as highlight emerging innovations. The competition is supported through FACIT’s strategic partner, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, which receives funding support from the Government of Ontario. This year’s final pitch competition featured six of the most promising oncology-related innovations from across Ontario, and WEMA was awarded the Audience Choice Award.
“As a result of our participation in the FACIT Falcons’ Fortunes pitch competition, we were able to bring awareness to our platform and how we are working toward more accessible cervical cancer screening in Ontario and/or to women who live in rural and remote regions across Canada. The visibility to important parties in the life sciences community can really help us to make connections and find the right avenues to bring this project forward,” celebrates Dr. Yeates.
WEMA has been perfecting SEVIA for a decade in Africa through funding from many research partners, and continues to improve screening services for women in Tanzania. The SEVIA program is integrated with the national cervical cancer prevention program and aligns with the mobile approaches endorsed by the WHO. WEMA’s team includes scientists, software developers, African and Canadian cervical cancer prevention experts, as well as software development and AI experts at Queen’s Center for Advanced Computing. Dr Yeates and her Tanzanian colleagues are also collaborating on cervical image analysis with experts at the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health in the U.S.
Looking forward, Yeates expects the innovative tool to have a huge impact in cervical cancer diagnosis. “Given the affordability of our solution and very few competitors, we think SEVIA can help to eliminate cervical cancer globally by 2030!” she bets.