13 August 2021
Over the last 150 years, our life expectancy has grown, from 40 years in 1850 to over 90 years today in some countries. This can be attributed to advances in medical science, improvements in public health, and equitable access to healthcare, especially for maternal and infant care.
What will the future hold for our world? Will we be overwhelmed by a ‘silver tsunami’ of retirees with poor health, or will we use the latest research findings to rejuvenate the elderly and extend their lifespan?
Our Longevity Futures is a show where I, Chris Curwen, speak to scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, politicians, and community activists who are giving the world the hope that we can all live longer and better, and improve our health.
In today’s episode of Our Longevity Futures, we are delighted to speak to Vasily Zotov. Vasily is the CEO of Artes Electronics, a company that is behind the design and development of the nota mole tracker.
The Nota Mole Tracker is a device which allows the user to easily detect cancerous moles on the surface of their skin, from the comfort of their own homes. The device combines high quality photography, artificial intelligence and biophysics, to measure the resistance (impedance) of cells of concern. Using data collected from the scan, the device and its corresponding phone app, notify the individual of their risk of melanoma.
Here are some of the highlights for my conversation with Vassiliy:
Chris: Can you tell me a little bit more about what the skin tracker actually does?
Vassiliy: Our skin tracker, based on bio-impedence technology, you’re supposed to possibly know this technology from smart scales. Based on this technology, we are helping with the problem and the normal situation. Helping with the skin and dealing with the possibility of use of early detection (of skin cancer). Because our users do not need to visit a doctor for that, they can do it at home. We do not make the diagnosis, but we give a possibility for the users to see either red or green zone, i.e do you need to worry if there is an emergency.
Chris: How does that actually work? Can you just talk us through how someone at home might use it to actually detect cancer?
Vassiliy: There is a difference between impedence of normal skin, and for example cancer skin.
Chris: But when you say impedence, what do you mean by that?
Vassiliy: We move very soft electricity, which is comparable to the electricity generated by our own body. So it’s completely safe, for example for pregnant people. It’s completely safe for other people, compared with different methods. And this electricity moves from the cell and gives a response. That response can either be a normal or abnormal response, which is cancer. In that case, we can recommend people to go to their doctor to receive treatment or to research the situation. This is a very interesting method. For example, we have the possibility to visit the doctor, for example, once a year. But between two appointments, everything can happen. And the earlier you detect the problem, the more successfully you can treat it. So, we are not going to claim a silver bullet and we are not going to solve all the problems. But we are raising the chance to detect an abnormal situation of the skin in a very early stage. And this technology is very interesting, because it’s completely safe. We don’t make any invasion to the skin or harm the skin. We give people the possibility to have diagnostic methods at home.
Chris Curwen: How accurate is the Nota skin tracker?
Vassiliy: It’s very hard to give adequate numbers right now, as we have a very limited amount of actual percentages and have done a very limited amount of research. But right now, I can say that there’s about 80% chance to get the correct diagnosis when using our device. But I can tell it’s very fearful, because to be able to get adequate numbers and do good research, we will have to do it at a late stage with normal procedures for examination in medical institutes. But it is a very interesting method, as you can do it more regularly than, for example, having to visit a professional medical doctor that has to perform a biopsy or an x-ray to make a diagnosis. You can’t do that every week. And our methods give you the possibility to do it every week at home, if you have any doubts. It gives you more possibilities to be able to detect skin cancer.
Chris Curwen: What was the dataset on which the machine learning algorithms behind the skin tracker work?
Vassiliy: This technology is very interesting and is already known for 60 years. But what this technology does is this: there are several electrodes, between which electricity flows. We actually don’t have some kind of picture, unfortunately. But on the skin tracker, there are dozens of these electrodes. And based on the future, we are going to create more complicated devices. For example, we have some devices that track melanoma breast cancer. And these devices make around 64,000 calculations/64,000 images. The technology out there is interesting, but is it possible for doctors to use it?
We have much more comfort of both things. For like dermatologists, it’s possible to be used by just one person. And this technology does only work with machine learning, because you can iterate with all of the information at the same time. This is why this technology is not very useful for a specialist, because in that case you will need to create different specialisation institutes and it’s just not worth it. But with machine learning, you will be able to iterate very big data sets, and that’s not a problem. It absolutely gives a lot of possibilities and new levels of developmental research and results.
Chris: And how accurate is it towards different ethnicities? Is it the same accuracy in everyone or does it fall down sometimes?
Vassiliy: No, we receive a lot of information from our device. Then it goes to the cloud, where the machine intellect analyses it. And then there will be a response that will tell you if there is or there isn’t a problem going on. We work and study as well in real medical centres. We work for example with people that are specialised in dermatology, that research the situation and make decisions. And with our device, we receive some data. And if the specialist decides to make a biopsy, we will wait for these results. Then we will compare the results of the classic medical research with the information that we have ourselves. And from then on, we do further research.
Chris: What was the clinical research that led to this technology and could you give a brief description of scientific backing for it?
Vassiliy: Actually bio-impedence is a very well known technology. It’s already being used in smart scales and smart watches. We don’t make something new here. We simply used very safe and classical medical technology and combined it with machine learning. And then they attempted to apply it to medical devices, for example in Korea and in Russia, and in Sweden. But there weren’t any good results, because they tried to give it to doctors, but doctors actually don’t need it. It’s much easier and understandable for them with other useful instruments. And our main achievement with this technology was to use this classical technology and, because it works with very big data, to give the data to someone with a decent background to work further with it.
Chris: So really it’s working as that first detection point and from then it gives you a recommendation, that’s when the clinicians come in and help. It seems like a very good system, and I can see how before it wouldn’t have worked, if they have given the data straight to doctors.
Vassiliy: Yes. And we also have plans to make a medical device of it. But right now, we really see many things being possible.
Chris: Is that using the same technology?
Vassiliy: Yes. Even now, we are able to see the differences between, for example, melanoma and basalioma. We do see the difference between them, but right now we are not able to give that information to the user, because we don’t pass the real clinical expertise. But as soon as we do pass it, we definitely will be able to give our users a much more detailed diagnosis.
Chris: When do you think there will be the possibility that this will give an accurate enough diagnosis, that you don’t have to go to the clinician. Is that quite far in the future?
Vassiliy: No, you must go to the clinician anyway. None of this technology can exclude professional medical assisting help. We just want to improve the possibilities for someone to receive a very early diagnosis. It can also be very useful for classical medicine, because we can give a second opinion. Can we become a medical device? Yes. Every medic we spoke to, is interested in being able to give even a more correct diagnosis. Because medics also need more methods to be able to give a diagnosis and to be able to have a second opinion. But no, during our project I never had the intention to become an alternative for the classical medicine. We just wanted to improve the situation and make it better. Even if we can just change one person’s life or the world statistics for such terrible diseases, that would be a great success. But I definitely don’t believe that we are making a better solution than today’s classical medicine.
Chris: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you actually built up the company and the team that you have around you. So, when did you actually start developing this and how has it progressed over the years?
Vassiliy: It’s a very long story. For a long time, I’ve been working in the banking business and in national investment and so on. But my grandfather was the last president of the Academy of Science of USSR, so I’ve spent my childhood around a couple of very scientific people. My father also worked for scientific research and development. And then the USSR blows, and I have no option, because in science you have just very few possibilities to collect money. So then I worked in banking business and finance business. And seven years ago, I decided to change my life completely. I went into research and started this business. And science is, in my opinion, very important for humans. And when I created this company, we spent several years getting experience and organizing our team. We started to develop our approach very slowly with little steps and very patient. This isn’t a project of one day or one week or one year. We worked for a several years, step by step, to create a company that produces and develops such devices. Because it’s not only just about science, engineering or logistics. We also had an offer to work with Chinese factories. And for example, our great success I think is when we launched a kickstarter last year, we promised the date of delivery and we kept our promise to that date. Even the coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop us. We always do everything in time. And this is a great success, I think.
Chris: Why is this technology so important? Obviously skin cancer is so prevalent in the modern world. What sort of impact do you think that your skin tracker can have on such a big problem?
Vassiliy: So first of all, we are not only looking for signs of skin cancer. We have a very huge amount of methods for diagnosing skin cancer, but these can’t be used by ‘normal’ people at home, because they are too complicated. Right now, we have for example a device for breast cancer detection and also a device for lung cancer detection. Our goal or the progress we want to make, is not about making completely new technologies. In our opinion, we need to correctly apply what we already have. It’s much easier than creating something completely new and it’s more effective as well, because you will have a lot of experience and a lot of science based research that you’ll already have done. And machine learning can add a big boost as well. Cancer also become more prevalent in younger people and it’s often more complicated for younger people to visit a doctor regularly every year. But we can now help to rise their chance to survive such terrible diseases.
Now we even make a special program on YouTube, in which people with skin cancer tell their story. And most of them said that they think they got diagnosed way too late and that even a couple of months earlier would’ve made a difference. And with our device, we try to give them an earlier diagnosis, which can also ensure a less aggressive treatment.
Nowadays, there is international medicine and a lot of ways of treatment for skin cancer, breast cancer… Which is amazing. But the most important thing is to detect it as early as possible. And that is why our goal is to make this device that can possibly give a person with cancer a higher chance to survive.
Chris: It seems like a device that should be in every household. How is your company scaling up to try and make that a possibility?
Vassiliy: Yeah, certainly. We have plans to get international investments and scaling the company. But we do prefer to take things step by step. I personally don’t like any revolutionary decisions. We produced this year the first amount of the devices, which we already sold to different markets. We are also receiving every day new data and information about how it’s going.
Chris: And I guess the more data you have, the better it gets at actually predicting these things?
Vassiliy: Yeah, definitely. This is extremely important and we receive a lot of feedback. We have a huge amount of users who have had melanoma and they already received information about their risk of getting skin problems and melanoma from beneficial medicine. And this was the first stage that we entered the market. We gave our devices to multiple people from different countries with different skin types, as skin type is very important. And the where you live is very important as well. We receive a lot of new information. And we may change our algorithms every day. And now we prepare to produce our second amount of 4000 devices in China and we hope to start the commercial sale at the beginning of next year. This first step was that we don’t target to receive any parole fees. We made very limited amounts of only 500 devices, and it worked without any problem. But now we are very ready to work with investors and make plans for scaling and development.
Chris: What impact do you see at home, or wearable health tech devices having on the future of healthcare in general?
Vassiliy: In my opinion, it’s a great help for official medicine. With our device, it is possible for people to be able to visit a doctor as early as possible when needed. So the doctor gets to see the patient earlier and is able to start treatment earlier as well. Another example is that it can help with monitoring and also be used in other situations. For example, even when an ambulance is on its way to someone in need, they can receive data about that person immediately. So, this technology is of course not providing any treatment, but it can provide help during vulnerable situations, which is very important. To talk about future development, our goal is to make the contact between patient and doctor closer. We can also use these devices to screen for certain situations that go on in our body and make complicated analyses. For example, we can make the prognosis that, for example, in five years you will get skin cancer and give you the advice now to stop doing certain things to prevent it. I do think it’s the future.
Chris: What else do you see that’s inevitable for the future of healthcare and over the next 10 years?
Vassiliy: I think that it’s having a lot more instruments for being able to perform self diagnosis and other instruments for self care. We actually have global ecosystems. Some belong to big producing companies like Siemens, Sony, Samsung… that produce medical devices and they all have their own ecosystems. Other ones belong to Google, Apple… And I think that soon in the future, the next generation of ecosystems will have very complicated devices, that even our own mobile phone will become some sort of health device. I think even Steve Jobs told about this in one of his last interviews. And I think we will see things like this happening somewhere in the next 10 years. It will be possible to monitor the whole human body by using different instruments and devices. Certain devices won’t no longer only be used for just communication and entertainment, but for diagnosis and possibly even treatment eventually as well.
Chris: What do you think are the biggest obstacles that might actually get in the way of that future, and how would we overcome them?
Vassiliy: I think everything is going well. Globally, we can see that projects like ours book success. And if you’re doing your job well, it’s always easier to get in contact with certain people and book good results. And for example, with global technological companies, we see that every smart watch starts to have more and more medical functions. We see as well a lot of international supporting programs, which want to give grants to young teams, who don’t have fast capital forage to be able to work out their ideas. I think that now, it’s only a question of time anymore. I think that each technology needs to be carefully produced. We are not going to say anything about numbers or diagnosis with certainty, before we complete all stages of approval. It is also very important for even a young team to understand that you must not make any mistakes. But you simple need to understand as well that if you go into biotech, it will take a long time. If you have a very good idea, but want to see the results of it tomorrow, this is not something for you.
Chris: Is there anything else that you think I should have asked you or that you want to share with us? As like a final note?
Vassiliy: Oh, as a final note I would like to say that it has been very nice for having had this talk with you. We now have very good interesting reform from many international journalists and specialists. I want to wish you good luck and as well to the whole team, to work in such a field as biotech. It is a very important field, as we will be able to fly to Mars one day and do so many other things. But your own health and the health of the people close to you, is the most important thing in the world. So, such technology for me is much more important than anything else.
We really appreciate Vassiliy for taking the time out of their day to come and talk to us. A massive thank you from Chris and everyone on the Gowing life team. You can keep up-to-date with everything that Vassiliy is doing here.
Please join us for future episodes and tell your friends and family about us!