India's AI biotech takes on diabetes epidemic

More people in India suffer from diabetes than any other country in the world. Innovative AI-driven health care technology is enabling early detection and treatment

Representative image of placards highlighting diabetes (Photo: DW)
Representative image of placards highlighting diabetes (Photo: DW)
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DW

An estimated 101 million people in India are living with diabetes, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. The estimate is higher than previously thought.

With another 136 million people estimated to be living with pre-diabetes, the South Asian country has earned the unfortunate distinction of being the diabetes capital of the world.

The study on non-communicable disease in India was carried out over a decade by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation.

Diabetes is growing as a global health challenge with over a billion people suffering from the disease worldwide. According to another recent study published in The Lancet, this number is expected to jump to 1.3 billion in the next 30 years.

India finds itself at the forefront of this epidemic. As the health care system grapples with the burden, experts believe that Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds immense potential to transform diabetes care in India.

"The potential lies in its ability to enhance early detection, personalize treatment, and empower individuals to manage their condition more effectively," said Gayathri Chodha, who is the founder of Bengaluru-based Aarca Research, which has developed technology for early detection of Type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.

Over time, blood sugar imbalances can permanently damage blood vessels and nerves.

A "pre-diabetic" is someone with high blood sugar considered as having a high risk of developing diabetes. A sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and obesity are among the factors contributing to developing the disorder.

AI solutions to fight diabetes

Aarca Research claims that its Intelligent Health Risk Assessment (IHRA) technology is the first of its kind, using infrared-based thermal imaging of a patient's face to rapidly identify biomarkers related to diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol imbalances (dyslipidemia). Traditionally, physicians rely on blood tests for early detection of such diseases.

Bengaluru-based Artelus is another company that offers solutions for diabetic retinopathy, which is the degradation of blood vessels in the eyes that eventually causes blindness.

The company has developed a system that is capable of screening a person for diabetic retinopathy in less than a minute.

Detecting the disorder is generally a time-consuming process requiring a physician to scan hundreds of retinal images looking for blood vessel abnormalities. Using AI to streamline the detection process allows for early diagnosis and treatment.

"Our solution ensures that the eye specialist has to only provide consultation for the patients identified through our system," said Pradeep Walia, founder and director of Artelus.

Predictive analytics is another AI application that can help treat diabetes by analyzing masses of patient health data, especially glucose levels, to detect potential complications earlier.

AI also has a role to play in personalizing treatment plans to fit an individual's profile, educating and encouraging patients to adhere to those plans.

That's where apps like BeatO come in, which provide AI support around the clock to help patients stay motivated. Then there are wearable devices with sensors powered by AI algorithms that can showcase new biomarkers that did not exist earlier.

Scaling AI in Indian health care

Successful implementation of these AI solutions hinges on several factors such as closing infrastructure gaps, ensuring data privacy, and tailoring solutions to suit the diverse socioeconomic contexts within India.

Aarca Research claims that their AI-driven method for early detection of type 2 diabetes is priced less than $5, which makes it accessible to a wide range of individuals seeking proactive diabetes management, across various socioeconomic backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Artelus says it has partnered with multiple eye hospitals, NGOs and public health departments across India to screen close to 100,000 people and has identified thousands of patients with diabetic retinopathy.

However, physicians say avoiding diabetes altogether with a healthy diet and exercise is the best course. Unfortunately, the Lancet study shows the increase in diabetes in India comes along with rising levels of risk factors such as obesity.

In terms of diabetes prevalence, the southern and northern regions of India exhibit the highest rates, with urban areas consistently showing high prevalence.

More and more children are also being diagnosed with diabetes.

However, studies published in 2021, before the new research was published in Lancet, already estimated that more than 50% of diabetes cases in India remain undiagnosed.

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Published: 01 Sep 2023, 9:14 AM
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