Merging Med and Tech
Harvard University student Kavya Kopparapu works at the intersection of medicine and technology to innovate life-saving solutions.
Kavya Kopparapu has won the 2018-19 National STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education Award for inventing GlioVision. The precision medicine platform, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), predicts tumor characteristics in a fraction of time and cost of traditional methods.
GlioVision has enormous implications for treatment protocols. These practical applications have been further highlighted by Kopparapu’s recognition as a U.S. Presidential Scholar, a Thiel Fellowship Finalist, a WebMD Health Hero and more.
GlioVision is not her first invention. At 17, she created Eyeagnosis, a 3D-printed lens system paired with a smartphone app. The function of this device was to take a photo of the retina up-close and then use AI to analyze it. This analysis had diagnostic implications, particularly with reference to diabetic retinopathy, which can result in blindness. The procedure was effective and, moreover, avoided the need for extensive eye examinations.
This invention, notes Kopparapu, has its roots in her family and in necessity. Her grandfather, who was from a small town in India, “was lucky he had the means to go to a major hospital to get diagnosed,” she says, “but a lot of people in developing countries or rural areas might not have an available ophthalmologist.” As such, some of the first testing of Eyeagnosis occurred in a hospital, reaching out to poor neighborhoods in a rural area. Before the possibility of using this device there, she notes, it was common practice to use traditional equipment, which necessitated carrying around bulky retinal cameras on the backs of motorcycles.
GlioVision extends this trajectory of innovation into the terrain of diagnosing glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. “I’ve found my niche in using computer science to make biological technology more accessible,” says Kopparapu, a freshman at Harvard University. In a recent Ted Talk, she discussed the importance of “precision medicine” or, in other words, “the tailoring of medical treatment to individual characteristics.”
“In the context of cancer,” continues Kopparapu, “precision medicine means recognizing one key fact: cancer is caused by genetic mutations, and even though multiple patients may be diagnosed with the same cancer, the molecular causes of this cancer may be very different.” For this reason, treatment needs to accord to the peculiarities of each patient. Molecular changes need to be identified, and treatments need to follow from this identification. Obtaining information about a tumor is where the focus of Kopparapu’s research lies. The current process, she notes, “is too slow,” given that the median survival rate for a cancer like glioblastoma is less than one year.
This is where AI comes in.
Using established data to help computers make knowledgeable inferences with new data can speed up the diagnosis process dramatically, notes Kopparapu. AI is an exploding field, but its implications for medicine are truly beginning to emerge. “Knowing the scope and the power of AI, I thought, ‘what if we could use this powerful technology to take information that doctors are already collecting—say a brain biopsy scan—and predict a tumor’s molecular information from that image?’ ” This is precisely what she has sought to achieve with GlioVision, a technology that promises to be a massive step forward in the treatment of cancer.
Kopparapu is the founder and chief executive officer of girlscomputingleague.org, an organization that has raised over $100,000 to contribute to and foster computer science programming and has positively impacted nearly 4,000 students across the United States. As the program’s vision states, this work has wide implications: “We aspire to see underrepresented groups in the technology workplace thrive and diversify the community with new perspectives, new processes and new thinking that challenges the status quo. We believe technology should be accessible to everyone and that aspiring students from every race and community can disrupt and change our world for the better.”
Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.