Imagine how many lives could be saved if we were able to easily identify cancer and cardiovascular disease during the early stages, or determine a person’s risk for the development of these diseases before it has even manifested.

More than 70% of deaths worldwide are caused by non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular and neuro-degenerative diseases. It’s a modern pandemic with a golden thread that links them: systemic inflammation. 

This inflammation is the result of increased circulating inflammatory biomarkers in the blood that can wage a slow and subtle war on the body, sometimes even long before the manifestation of disease. Healthcare start-up, BioCODE, a spin-out from Stellenbosch University, is working toward a future where the cure lies in prevention, by developing point-of-care smart sensing solutions that detect circulating inflammatory molecules in the blood, which are present during the very early stages of disease. 

Research and Design Engineer, Este Burger, says that the rapid tests will detect novel inflammatory markers in a drop of blood for the early identification of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. “These tests will be affordable, accessible and as easy to use as a glucose sensor or a pregnancy test. They will be used by healthcare professionals to screen and identify patients who are possible risk cases and monitor patients’ response to treatment.”

Burger adds that the tests are currently in pre-prototype phase and that they hope to launch a commercial prototype in late 2021.

Headed up by Professor Resia Pretorius, Head of Stellenbosch University’s Physiological Sciences Department, the BioCODE team is rounded out by Professor Anna-Mart Engelbrecht, also a physiologist and cancer researcher, Professor Willie Perold from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, as well as biochemists and engineers. This unique synergy of specialised resources and skills-sets allows BioCODE to successfully develop innovative healthcare solutions. However, they credit Stellenbosch University (SU) LaunchLab as their business partner, saying that the incubator’s mentorship has played a major role in helping them gain momentum on the business side.

“We’re nearing the end of SU LaunchLab’s Countdown programme and cannot emphasise enough how it has rewired our brains towards business thinking,” says Burger. “The course is built on the philosophy of Design Thinking, which enables customer discovery, empathy building (with our potential customer base) and market analysis, while Josh’s personal mentorship has really helped us get to grips with procurement protocols, regulations and the like. It’s truly been a mind-shifting experience for all of us and will go a long way to ensuring the success of our business.”

SU LaunchLab CEO, Josh Romisher, says that the Countdown: Idea Validation is an interactive, eight-week business building programme to test the merits of any early stage business idea. “It seeks to answer the important question, “I have an idea but is it a business?” he says. “Our aim at SU LaunchLab is to transform the seemingly impossible into world-shaping businesses, with a strong focus on climate, agriculture and health. We do this because our intent is to utilise private sector entrepreneurism to solve public sector deficiencies prevalent in Africa, which exist primarily in these three sectors.”

During the time that it took you to read this article, there were at least 4 500 cancer fatalities and 8 000 from cardiovascular disease, according to the World Health Organisation: statistics that are exacerbated by the circumstances and lack of health care for many of these victims in developing countries. With the BioCODE solution being relatively cheap to produce and small enough to be used by medical practitioners in their rooms and nurses in mobile clinics, this is truly a world-shaping start-up that uses private sector thinking to solve public sector challenges.