Ahmedabad: A silicosis screening test pack for early discovery of the sickness was together evolved by researchers of the National Institute for Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, Indian Council for Medical Research, and ICMR-National Institute of Virology (NIV) Mumbai.
Silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of fine silica dust over several years. Complications from silicosis also increase the risk of tuberculosis. The early-detection kits come as a ray of hope in saving the lives of quarry workers, masons and construction labourers most of whom work in the informal sector across the world.
The burden of silicosis in India is estimated at 11.5 million patients. However, researchers involved in the project say this is an underestimate as very early silicosis patients are currently left out of the system because it is not diagnosed through chest X-ray.
The development of the kit is a shot in the arm for ICMR-NIOH Ahmedabad scientists whose study — on a specific biomarker secreted by lungs to gauge lung damage due to silicosis – was published early on. This study became a base for the development of the kit. Dr Kamalesh Sarkar, Sarang Dhatrak, Bidisa Sarkar, Umesh Chandra Ojha, Pankaja Raghav and Avinash Pagdhune had carried out the study.
“India has set an aim to eliminate tuberculosis by 2025. But you cannot do so without eliminating silicosis. Now, we may have a fighting chance,” said one of the scientists involved in the research and development of a silicosis early screening kit. This first-of-its-kind device in Southeast Asia can detect silicosis infection almost a decade early using just a drop of blood and without any sophisticated instrument.
The fortuitous flight to Goa
Researchers at NIOH had been working on silicosis since 2017. Then, on a flight to Goa in October 2018, Dr Kamalesh Sarkar, Director of NIOH, happened to be seated next to fellow scientist Dr Shyam Sundar Nandi, a Biotechnologist at NIV Mumbai (he developed Covid testing kits during the pandemic). During the course of the conversation, they spoke about silicosis study and discussed the feasibility of practical application of the same.
That serendipitous discussion on silicosis is what led to the development of the early screening kit — the chemicals and other supplies were provided by the Ahmedabad team while the Mumbai group developed the kit.
Why early diagnosis is needed
The three stages of silicosis are acute (5 years’ exposure), accelerated (10 years) and chronic (15 years). Most silicosis patients are diagnosed too late as the only available test for diagnosis is the Chest X-ray, which doesn’t catch lung damage unless there is prolonged exposure over about a decade. By then, it is mostly too late for treatment, said researchers.
Speaking on the need for an early diagnostic tool with mass deployable capacity, Dr Kamalesh Sarkar, Director of NIOH, said, “Now that we have a better diagnostic mechanism, we will not only be able to gauge the actual number of silicosis patients, but diagnose them early. This will lead to timely treatment, prevent lung damage and provide better quality of life. It will also reduce the risk of subsequent pulmonary tuberculosis in these patients.”
The people behind the kit
The early detection kit for silicosis was jointly developed by Dr Shyam Sundar Nandi , Dr Upendra Lambe, Sonali Sawant and Dr Jagadish Deshpande from ICMR-NIV Mumbai Unit and Dr Kamlesh Sarkar of ICMR-NIOH. It uses the proxy CC16 biomarker, a protein secreted by lungs, to assess damage caused by exposure to silica dust. This technique was accepted by Journal Nature Scientific Reports earlier this week.
The ICMR on Thursday said that it had transferred the technology to two companies, Axiva Scihem Biotech in Delhi, and Acrannolife Genomics Pvt Ltd in Chennai. The first 2 lakh kits would hit the Indian market by February 2022; the per-kit cost is likely to remain below Rs 200.