Over one-third of cancer deaths in Africa result from cancers that are preventable and treatable when  detected early. But many sub-Saharan countries lack the tools, training or resources to properly diagnose cancer at its early stages.

Pittsburgh medical startup Omnyx wants to change the way we diagnose and treat cancer using digital pathology software and consulting.

Through a partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), Omnyx is bringing its digital slide scanners and software to medical professionals in underserved areas of Africa.

With Omnyx’s technology, doctors in Rwanda, Botswana, Liberia, Lesotho and Swaziland can share high-quality tissue images with clinicians in the U.S. to help identify disease. Within 72 hours, the specialists can share their diagnoses and recommend treatment options for patients in Africa, for a fraction of the cost of traditional biopsy slides.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there are fewer than one pathologist per million people. In comparison, the U.S. has more than 60 pathologists per million people. With fewer pathologists to diagnose patients in Africa, many patients are ineffectively screened for cancer, and, as a result, are only diagnosed at a late stage of the disease.

Using digitization, Omnyx creates the opportunity to share slides instantly with experts who can identify diseases. For example, a clinician in Massachusetts can provide feedback to a more junior clinician in Africa who’s dealing with a patient case that’s difficult to interpret. The digitization of biopsy slides creates a network between doctors in Africa and specialists in the U.S.

Courtesy Omnyx.

“Our mission is to transform pathology,” explains Mamar Gelaye, CEO of Omnyx. “Throughout the rest of the world, there are limited skills and capabilities in addressing and identifying noncommunicable diseases like cancer. We are proponents of outfitting people with technologies that support the complexity of the decisions that they have to make, in a much more consistent and informed way.”

Omnyx, a venture of GE Healthcare and UPMC that was founded in 2008, joins academic medical centers, vendors, trade groups and medical associations in the ASCP partnership. The ASCP is “the world’s largest professional membership organization for pathologists and laboratory professionals.” The initiative aims to diagnose and treat cancer in the developing world while also establishing a medical infrastructure for the future.

“This is a team of committed clinicians and technologists that want to improve cancer outcomes throughout Africa,” Gelaye says. “The kind of work that we’re going to do is going to have an enormous impact, not only with particular patients but informing the way we think about how to improve healthcare to a large extent on the continent in Africa.”

“We believe healthcare should become integrated and more consistent everywhere,” Gelaye says. “It shouldn’t be landlocked; patients should have the best eyes no matter where they are.”

Omnyx also has collaborated with the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to study processes and interactions between hospitals and pathologists.

Gelaye admits it would be hard to locate Omnyx’s headquarters anywhere but Pittsburgh.  “Where else could you get all of those skills sitting shoulder to shoulder to take on some of the world’s problems? We like to think of the work that we’re doing as transformative in health care, and we’re honored to be able to do it from Pittsburgh.”