On Oct. 15, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the unintended health consequences of COVID-19. The report is a cautionary tale — not one of actions taken in response to COVID. It’s a dire warning about the effects of inaction based on the pandemic. Specifically, the article explored the consequences of missed cancer screenings.
“Hundreds of thousands of cancer screenings were deferred after worries about COVID-19 shut down much of the U.S. healthcare system starting this spring. Because many cancers can advance rapidly, months without detection could mean fewer treatment options and worse outcomes, including more deaths.” According to the National Cancer Institute, these missed screenings could result in 10,000 additional deaths from colon and breast cancer alone. And that number, according to experts, is conservative.
If you take nothing else away from this column, let it be that you need to make and honor your annual cancer screenings.
Currently, mammography is the gold standard for breast cancer screening. It is a life-saving tool, but unfortunately, it is not available or works for everyone.
Many Arkansans do not receive necessary cancer education and cancer screening services. There are still areas of Arkansas without mammography facilities. Lack of access and transportation are two significant barriers in many of our underserved rural communities.
Women with dense breast tissue — more fibrous tissue and not much fat — may have increased risk of breast cancer because small tumors around the tissue make it difficult to detect in mammography. Dense breast tissue looks white in mammograms, so do masses and tumors. Mammograms can be less accurate in women with dense breasts.
On a related note, screening mammograms are not recommended for women under 40, given that dense breasts are common in younger women. According to the American Cancer Society, about 4% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States occur in women under 40.
Currently, my colleagues at Namida Lab and I are working on a remarkable project that can help bridge these gaps. It’s called Melody. Melody is a noninvasive, prescreening diagnostic tool. It is to be used as a complement to traditional mammography; it is not a replacement.
The Melody test measures protein biomarkers in tear samples that are elevated when a breast abnormality is present. Tear proteins are collected using a Schirmer strip (a piece of filter paper) placed in the lower eyelid to collect tears.
Melody is noninvasive, painless and requires no exposure to radiation. A laboratory technician or nursing assistant could easily collect tear samples needed to run Melody. And unlike mammogram equipment, Schirmer strips are easy to transport, even to the most remote locations.
Using Melody as a prescreening tool can help underserved communities such as those in rural areas get timely screening, treatment, care, social support, and assistance to make their journey much easier.
Because Melody isolates proteins instead of utilizing images, it is a more accurate screen for women with dense breasts. Additionally, because of the ease and availability, younger women can start screening earlier.
I co-founded Namida Lab in 2019 to help women take a more active role in their breast health. Dr. Anna Daily, Melody’s co-inventor, and I have worked around the clock to bring this new medical technology from our lab benches to your doctor’s office. And we are almost there. We have currently completed numerous clinical trials, compiled the data, and are validating Melody in our high complexity CLIA lab on our high throughput automated ELISA system. Validation is targeted to be completed by the end of the year.
When can you expect to see Melody in your doctor’s office? If we stay on this current trajectory, we expect to bring Melody to market in 2021.
And although the finish line is currently within reach, the most effective way to screen for breast cancer is through traditional mammography. Make your appointment. Keep your appointment.
Omid Moghadam is the founder and CEO of Fayetteville-based Namida Lab. He is an inventor, entrepreneur, venture investor and educator. He specializes in launching new ventures with social impact in health and technology. The opinions expressed are those of the author.