A new lab opened at the Skolkovo Technopark on Wednesday that looks set to drastically improve the diagnosis of cancer patients across Russia.

Russia’s first digital lab was opened by UNIM, a resident of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster that uses Digital Pathology – the conversion of glass slides into digital slides – to allow patients to obtain a histological, immunohistochemical or molecular analysis of their tumour and consultation on treatment and rehabilitation from the top specialists in their field, regardless of the patient’s location and without the need to travel to another city or abroad.

“We work with the top specialists across Russia and around the world, from countries including the U.S., U.K., the Czech Republic, Norway and Italy,” said Alexei Remez, director general of UNIM, at the lab’s official opening on Wednesday.

Currently, it is very common (estimates vary from 50 to 80 percent of diagnoses) for patients with suspected tumours to be given inaccurate diagnoses. This can result in people undergoing operations and chemotherapy for cancers they do not have, others being given the wrong kind of treatment for the cancer they have, or people with cancer going undiagnosed.

Alexei Remez, director general of UNIM, speaking at the lab's opening at Skolkovo Technopark. Photo: Sk.ru.

The situation is getting worse because of several factors, according to Remez: more and more different kinds of oncology are being recorded, which makes the task of analysing the tumour and prescribing the best course of action even trickier. At the same time, there is a deficit of specialists around the world, and this is compounded by the experts available tending to specialise increasingly in subcategories of cancers.

“There is a deficit of specialists of 15-25 percent in the U.S., 30-40 percent on average in the EU, and up to 50 percent in Russia,” said Remez.

UNIM aims to solve this problem by ensuring that patients have access to the very best consultants, regardless of their location. The Digital Pathology system is used by 1,400 specialists around the world, and the remote diagnosis service is already offered at federal and regional health services across Russia.

“The UNIM project and Digital Pathology platform offer not just a second opinion, but a third opinion on interesting histology and histopathology cases, accurately confirming or disproving a patient’s diagnosis,” said Yulia Gulenkova, acceleration director within the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster.

The lab enables samples from all over Russia to be digitalised and sent electronically for a second opinion. Photo: Sk.ru.

The Digital Pathology system reduces the time taken to reach a diagnosis, because slides can be sent for expert opinion electronically.

Dr. Badma Bashankaev, head of the surgical centre at GMS Clinic in Moscow, praised the UNIM lab, speaking from personal experience.

“We used its services on January 4 [the lab had been functioning for some time before its official opening this week] for a complex case at our clinic. The results were ready on January 8, and the level of research was fantastic,” said Bashankaev.

UNIM’s system also acts as a training platform for oncologists, said Gulenkova.

“The company can post rare cases that already have a verified diagnosis – without the patients’ identifying data, of course – and invite doctors to solve the case study. Doctors can discuss the cases, and then compare the results of what they discussed with the results actually seen in the patient,” she explained.  

Dr. Badma Bashankaev was full of praise for UNIM's system, having used it earlier this year. Photo: Sk.ru.

The data collected by the system is also being used to create an archive that will eventually be used to develop artificial intelligence algorithms, to make the diagnosis process even more accurate, eliminating room for human error.

Sergei Morozov, chief radiology specialist at the Moscow government department of health, said that such an automated system won’t replace doctors, but could save them time and reduce costs. He estimated that up to 36 percent of medical tasks can be automated.

Kirill Kaem, senior vice president for innovations at the Skolkovo Foundation, said he was delighted that UNIM had chosen to open its lab at the Skolkovo Technopark.

“When there is a good tech platform, when invested funds and knowledge make it possible to carry out operational procedures to the level of the highest international standards, when the company has brought together all the skills needed to help patients and develop technology, and when it is all taking place at Skolkovo, that’s the result we are aiming for in all our attempts to support [startups],” said Kaem.

Remez said the decision to base the lab at Skolkovo was a logical one, despite the innovation centre’s location on the outskirts of Moscow.

“Skolkovo has already succeeded in becoming the tech centre of Russia,” said Remez.

Kirill Kaem, senior vice president for innovations of the Skolkovo Foundation. Photo: Sk.ru.

Ruslan Kamalov, head of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster, expressed hope that the partnership between UNIM and Skolkovo would go from strength to strength.

“We’re happy to have such a resident and provide them with support,” he said.  

“For any beginning, people are very important. The UNIM team is not just a team of professionals; it’s a circle of like-minded thinkers who want to change the world for the better,” added Kamalov.

UNIM became a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation in 2015 after winning the diagnosis systems category of the OncoBioMed competition jointly organised by the foundation and the Federal Agency of Scientific Organisations. The startup was awarded prize money to develop its technology.

Last year, UNIM raised an undisclosed amount of investment from Medme, a strategic investor on the digital medicine market, in a deal supported by the Skolkovo Foundation’s investment service. The company was at the time valued at $2 million.