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Duke MBA Partners With Duke Alumnus To Create Low-Cost Cervical Cancer Treatment

Published: 2 years ago | 0 comments


Emilie Gao thought she would spend her summer internship doing fundraising and business development for existing projects, but she also had the opportunity to do first-hand work on a project. Now, she hopes that the low-cost cervical cancer prevention tool she helped develop will soon be able to make an impact.

Gao, an MBA candidate at the Fuqua School of Business set to graduate in 2018, met Dan Burnett when Fuqua’s Healthcare Club took a trip to San Francisco to visit healthcare companies where Duke alumni work. Burnett, who graduated with an MD/MBA in 2001, is the founder of TheraNova, an innovative medical device company that happened to be one of the stops on the San Francisco trip.

Gao returned to San Francisco in the summer of 2017 to intern at TheraNova.

TheraNova works on both for-profit and not-for-profit medical devices, and about halfway through her internship, Gao learned about an idea that Burnett had for a not-for-profit device.

Burnett, who said his idea was “purely conceptual” before Gao arrived, wanted to create a device that could offer a low-cost solution for treating cervical cancer in developing areas.

“Eighty or ninety years ago, cervical cancer was one of the top cancer killers in the U.S.,” Burnett said. “Now, it’s not even in the top 10. But in low- and middle-income areas, like India, Africa and Southeast Asia, cervical cancer is still one of the top two cancer killers. If we could just make a device that was easily accessible, durable, portable and used a ubiquitous energy source, we could help combat that.”

The project spoke to Gao, who has had friends who have been diagnosed with cervical pre-cancer. She also had a strong background to help create a medical device – before enrolling at Fuqua, she worked in the healthcare and medical device industry at Johnson & Johnson. She had also already co-founded a healthcare screening startup that produced a portable digital camera that could take a picture of one’s retina for use in long-distance diagnoses.

She and Burnett got to work and began prototyping.

“There is a great startup environment at TheraNova,” Gao said. “They have a R&D section and a lab where we were able to test products.”

It also gave her great experience for her future career once she graduates from Fuqua, she said. She’s pursuing a certificate in healthcare sector management and wants to work in the healthcare industry.

The pair’s first idea had too many constraints, so they went back to the drawing board. They knew that the cancerous tissue could be destroyed with heat, but they had to find a way to produce this heat without electricity.

Their final idea came from another technology called Embrace, which uses boiling water to melt wax and create a baby warmer. After meeting with Embrace’s COO, the TheraNova team decided to try to use boiling water as their energy source.

The device they created consists of a hollow shaft with insulated tubes running through it. The boiling water runs through these tubes and heats up the conductive metal tip to a temperature at which it can safely perform the procedure.

From there, Gao said, the procedure is quick and easy. The practitioner inserts the device and performs the thermoablation to destroy the cancer tissue in 60 seconds. This procedure delays or even prevents the cervical cancer from advancing.

The device requires no advanced technology or moving parts, and Burnett estimates it will cost somewhere between $50 and $100. Because it can be used across thousands of patients, this amounts to pennies per treatment.

Burnett is currently looking into funding and partnership opportunities so that the technology can go to market and begin helping people.

“This treatment technology won’t eliminate all cervical cancer, but it has great potential to be a compelling solution until the HPV vaccine becomes easier to administer and available more widely,” he said.

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