Nikhiya Shamsher’s prototype of QuitPuff indicates whether one is at risk of getting oral cancer
As a 14-year-old, Nikhiya Shamsher had an eye-opening experience on a hospital visit to meet children as part of a project, ‘Compassionate Clowns’. Outside the paediatric ward, she saw a man whose jaw had been half removed and who was struggling to speak. “He had late stage oral cancer and the nurse said he was one of the few lucky ones. There were many who didn’t survive,” recalls Shamsher.
After a lot of research, Shamsher found out that oral cancer had a high mortality rate. Over five people in India die every hour because of oral cancer. By country, the incidence of oral cancer is the highest in India, which accounts for almost one-third of the cases found in the world. “As it turns out, one of the biggest reasons for this [high mortality rate] is late diagnosis,” says the now-18-year-old who graduated from Greenwood High International School, Bengaluru. Due to the late diagnosis, people not only go through a lot of physical stress but also a lot of emotional and financial stress.
All of it got her thinking—why did oral cancer get detected at such a late stage? In an attempt to find a solution to this problem, Shamsher started researching when she was in class nine. The prototype of QuitPuff—a point-of-care diagnostic device for the early risk detection of oral pre-cancer and cancer—is now ready. The device is a bottle with the QuitPuff reagent in it, wherein the individual is expected to spit, heat it for 15 minutes and when it changes colour compare it to a colour chart to understand the risk stage. “It is a simple principle, it detects a biomarker present in the saliva, and changes colour. The more the biomarker, the darker the colour will be, which means the higher the risk of developing oral cancer,” she explains.
The device, which costs ₹38, has currently been tested on 500 patients (400 chronic smokers and 100 non-smokers], and she is hoping to make further improvements “to make the test as simple and accessible as possible”. The next stage would be testing it on a larger variety of people, including more non-smokers, and to try and bring down the cost further.
QuitPuff doesn’t diagnose cancer, “it merely tells you how high or low your risk is of developing cancer”, says Shamsher. “If you get a middle to high risk, you would need to go see a doctor. The aim of the test is to encourage behavioural change and warn the smoker that you are in a lot of danger... this is a good time to stop.”
The journey to making QuitPuff where it is currently was not easy; she had to learn to deal with the frustration of the tests not working and keep trying. Moreover, she adds, “When I wanted to get tests done with patients, I went to a bunch of hospitals for permission, but faced a lot of rejections since most of them didn’t believe in my project because I was very ‘young’. Eventually, I managed to do the project at Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru.” She has set a realistic timeline and hopes to see the product in the market in the next 10 years, since clinical trials are likely to take some time. She has managed to sustain the project with the help of the research grants and awards she has won.
Shamsher admits that juggling school work and working on QuitPuff was no cakewalk. “There were days when my research got so interesting, I’d just want to spend weeks doing it. My grades took a hit initially, but when that happened, it forced me to take a step back and re-evaluate and set a stricter schedule for myself,” she says. Apart from QuitPuff, Shamsher has been working on another project—Yearn to Learn—wherein she is helping set up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) labs for schools that can’t afford to do the same. So far, she has set up close to 120 labs in 30 schools just in Bengaluru and is hoping to scale that up as well.
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(This story appears in the 18 December, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)