By Brendan Lewis
LOWELL -- Nobody likes to waste their breath. But with a new prototype presented Wednesday at the fifth annual New Venture Competition Showcase, one breath could be all that separates one from detecting lung cancer long before it becomes a fatal threat.
By exhaling just once on Astraeus Technologies' prototype L-Card, a small card a little larger than the palm of an average hand, a patient can identify even minuscule signs of lung cancer at a stage where it can easily be squashed.
The Cambridge company's L-Card was among 18 potential groundbreaking medical inventions whose backers were vying for $100,000 in services at the New Venture event, which was put on by the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center, also known as M2D2, and held at University Crossing.
Nearing the end of their four-minute presentation, an Astraeus team member held a smartphone blinking with a bright red light across the screen, an indication that followed after they fed their L-Card with an gas sample contaminated with lung cancer.
"A total of 80 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed after they've spread, and 60 percent are diagnosed after they're incurable, so all of that depends on how far along the disease progression is when the cancer is detected," said Astraeus team member Graham Lieberman, in an interview afterward. "So with the L-Card, the device we've designed, we've been using gases that specifically detect early stages of lung cancer to bring that 60 percent down to the lowest percentage as possible."
Teammate Alex Blair added that the difference between the stagings "really changes the outcome for the patient."
"So if we're in an advanced stage -- say, stage four -- 4 percent of patients are alive in five years. If it's in stage one, which is really the stage of lung cancer we are able to detect, we're talking about 60 percent of the patients are still alive in five years. So it's more than a 10-fold difference," Blair said.
At the conclusion of their pitch, which was witnessed by more than 100 people, team member Jay Kumar said that if successful, Astraeus will certainly not stop at designing the L-Card to detect respiratory gases containing early signs of lung cancer.
"Looking ahead, we see remarkable potential for the card as a platform," Kumar said. "Gases are available for many diseases and we plan to screen for all of them."
But Astraeus' product was certainly not the only one drawing interest.
Brighton-based Disease Diagnostic Group team member John Lewandowski spoke about another early-detection device his group has designed, in this case to detect malaria from a drop of blood within a minute.
"You'll see that we're not only competitive in cost but also on par with accuracy, and the key thing is low detection limit," said Lewandowski. "We are able to detect something that is asymptomatic (no symptoms showing); when people don't know that they have it, which is key for malaria eradication."
Scott Latham, interim dean of UMass Lowell's Manning School of Business, said events like the New Venture Competition are crucial for a growing innovation hub.
"If you look at the best innovation clusters like in Silicon Valley and down in Kendall Square (Cambridge), they're all about networking and all about putting the right people together -- people with money, people with ideas and people with execution backgrounds," said Latham. "And the more you can do that, the more you're going to see startup firms get to commercialization and you'll see them benefit the local economy. So that's really how something like this is so critical."
Besides Latham, judges also included Barbara Huitbregtse, vice president at Boston Scientific; Katherine Luzuriaga, health-care professor at UMass Memorial; James Petisce, of Becton Dickinson and Co.; Kevin Strange, manager of new business development at Boston Scientific.
Winners will be announced early next month.
According to the university, providing the $100,000 in services are M2D2, Becton Dickinson and Company, Boston Scientific, MPR Product Development, Omni Components, Regulatory & Quality Solutions, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.
Funds come in the form of engineering, legal, regulatory, clinical and business services, along with the use of lab and meeting space.