Vancouver firm wants to help derail India’s cancer train

Published: August 23, 2013

Zecotek CEO Faouzi Zerrouk. Submitted photo.

VANCOUVER DESI

Clad in thin woolen blankets and clutching medical documents, groups of farming folk wait anxiously for Train 339 to pull into Bhatinda Junction Railway station in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

As it rolls in around 9 p.m., often late, the sick are rushed onto the passenger cars for the overnight trip some 20 stations away to Bikaner in the neighboring state of Rajasthan.

The train stays for about 30 minutes for the teary goodbyes before it lurches forward on its daily journey that ends in misery for many of the sick and their kin on board.

Like Train 339,  many on the train will be learning of their destiny too late.

They are cancer patients from Punjab’s farming belt impacted by indiscriminate pesticide use.

They are on what the locals have come to call The Cancer Train.

This train has become a magnet for anti-cancer crusader groups in India fighting for better access to early detection medical facilities with positron emission tomography (PET)/CT scanners that can save the lives of thousands.

According to Indian media, the Punjab State government has launched its first door-to-door cancer census across the state to determine the number of people who have cancer or cancer like symptoms. The public hospital to which Train 339 ferries patients — in Bikaner, in the neighboring state of Rajasthan — reports 1,000 more cancer patients a year, on average, according to chief oncologist Ajay Sharma.

The State of Punjab is not alone with alarming cancer statistics as the numbers are similarly grim for the rest of India.

Every year 1.2 million new cases of cancer get detected in India. The rest of the patients do not get detected on time. About 70 per cent of the cancer patients in India die within the first year of diagnosis, the majority because they were not detected early.

Heart disease is the second biggest killer in the country after cancer. India has 60 million people with heart disease in the country and that number is growing. Currently only about two million people get an angiography in a year.

In a recent published interview, President of Philips Healthcare India, A. Krishna Kumar, said India does not have enough quality diagnostics for good therapy to be practiced in the country.

“If you look at cancer for example, India has 315 cancer centers, but you only have 75 PET /CT scanners that are critical for diagnosing cancer. At the rest of the centers, the treatment is happening blindly without knowing where the tumour actually is, and hence they are radiating the tumour. In such a case, a patient could feel that this test is unnecessary because the treatment is inaccurate,” he said.

Kumar said affordability is the key obstacle facing India when it comes to medical imaging for early diagnosis using PET/CT scanners.

A solution to this problem may lie on the other side of the world in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Here a homegrown company called Zecotek Photonics is gaining an increasingly international profile for its development program of high performance, cost effective  PET medical scanning device configuration aimed at BRIC nations, especially the Indian and Chinese markets.

These medical devices, which are used to detect conditions such as cancer, heart disease, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, use light from scintillation crystals and no radiation to produce 3D images of metabolic  processes in the body that provide very early detection.

Zecotek CEO Faouzi Zerrouk, an English educated PhD in Theoretical Physics, who has became a leading expert in photonics technologies said the PET systems are also used to define the adequate drugs for the disease as well as defining the real time effect of the selected drug and its progress.

Zecotek makes these crystals, the photo detectors and associated electronics as well as the data acquisition boards, as part of its medical high performance low cost, scanning device configuration.

PET scanners are usually very expensive; each one costs about $1 million to make and retail at $2 to 3 million dollars. Crystals make up more than third of that cost.

The PET devices are so effective that the World Health Organization recommends two of them for every million people in a population.

Zerrouk said Zecotek’s plan for India is to locate a strategic partner in India to manufacture and introduce these PET machines to the nation’s medical and pharmaceutical establishments.

“We will seek the support of the local industries, business institutions, the health ministry, in order to jointly build India’s national PET program,” said Zerrouk.

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