Student Inventor Judit Giró Benet Wins 2020 James Dyson Award
Judit Giró Benet is a 24-year-old US student who was has just won the 2020 James Dyson Award which is an annual design award aimed to encourage students to engineer problem-solving inventions to some of the world’s largest problems. Judit Giró Benet designed an at-home breast cancer screening device that aims to help the 300,000+ women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Being able to test and test regularly for breast cancer is extremely important, yet 40% of women are skipping the testing due to the high cost ($170 and up) and the physical pain that a mammogram can bring.
Judit Giró Benet aimed to solve this problem via The Blue Box: A biomedical device for pain-free, non-irradiating, non-invasive, low-cost ($60) and in-home breast cancer testing. The device itself works within 30 seconds, and results are achieved through a simple urine sample. The Blue Box uses six chemical sensors and reacts to targeted breast cancer biomarkers. Once the algorithm has reached a diagnosis, the results are sent back to the user’s phone and displayed in the Blue Box app.
Judit was born in Spain and moved to California as a young design student. At the University of California, Irvine, she learned more about the issues people face with traditional mammograms which can potentially lead to 1/3 of cancers being detected too late.
Judit recently discussed her life-saving invention via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in inventing and why did you gravitate towards the medical field?
Judit Giró Benet (JGB): My biology teacher once explained to us how the human body converts a breadcrumb into 265 kcal with hardly any energy loss. In fact, the mitochondria are capable of doing this by working with an efficiency that no human-designed “machine” has ever achieved or is likely to achieve. This lesson aroused a certain fascination in me. However, it also led to a slight hint of frustration at the unpredictable nature of biology. I’ve always been more of a math fan than a biology enthusiast. The only solution to such unpredictability was mathematics. There had to be a way to explain human biology with mathematics. Biomedical engineering was the solution.
Having finished my studies in 2018, I decided that inventing a device to improve the testing accessibility for breast cancer was my vocation. The master’s program in Embedded Cyber-physical Systems at the University of California Irvine seemed like the perfect place to find the knowledge, contacts, and resources needed to keep improving technology.
In the summer of 2020, I finished my Master’s, and professor Fadi Kurdhai, from the Center of Embedded-cyber Physical Systems of the University of California Irvine, offered me the opportunity to work at the university as a Junior Specialist. We are currently trying to start new research on the physiological changes in the body of the breast cancer patient and the consequences on the chemical composition of urine.
MM: Why did you decide to focus on breast cancer in particular?
JGB: The American Cancer Society predicts that breast cancer will account for 30% of all cancers diagnosed in the US by 2020. However, the research devoted to it is not proportional to its incidence. In reality, the US National Institute of Health recognized that women are underrepresented in medical research.
This trend can be observed in the field of oncology, specifically considering prevention programs based on mammography. In fact, a Center for Disease Control study indicated that only 65% of women attended the program in the past 2 years, which could lead to 1/3 of breast cancers being detected too late and therefore, women have a worse prognosis and decreased chances of survival.
The reasons women skip mammography-based screenings vary: pain (41% of respondents), difficulty missing work, and poor insurance coverage according to the Journal of Women’s Health. Furthermore, according to the Catalan Health Department, only 6.45% of breast cancers diagnosed by mammography are actually cancer. In other words, the sensitivity of mammography is dramatically low.
Finally, although its dose is not substantial enough to be considered harmful, exposure to mammography every two years increases the risk of breast cancer. In conclusion, there is a need for non-invasive, inexpensive, sensitive and at-home breast cancer screening.
As a conclusion, there does exist a real, urgent need for a novel breast cancer screening solution that is non-invasive (pain-free), non-irradiating, low-cost, more sensible and user-friendly.
MM: How, exactly, does it work and how accurate is it at detecting cancer, especially in the early stages?
JGB: After receiving The Blue Box at home, you only need to download an app on your phone and follow three simple steps: Collect a urine sample in a container, place it in The Blue Box and wait a few minutes. The Blue Box then performs a chemical analysis of the sample and will send the results to the cloud, where an algorithm based on AI (artificial intelligence) is executed. This leads to a diagnosis, which is communicated through the app itself. Ultimately, The Blue Box is a change in the way society fights breast cancer.
MM: How did you come up with the concept for The Blue Box and how long did it take to make it a reality?
JGB: Already in Roman times, medicine has paid special attention to human physiological metabolites. However, human metabolic studies did not enter the field of oncology until April 1989 when Dr. Hywel Williams and Dr. Andres Pembroke of King’s College Hospital in London reported a case in The Lancet magazine about a Doberman Collie owner who attended their query.
The patient explained that her dog was showing increasing interest in smelling a mole on her leg. The mole was later shown to be cancerous and removed, thus saving the patient’s life. This turning point showed that cancer produces metabolic changes in human physiology, thus altering the taste, texture, smell, body shape… Now it is believed that such an event has established the starting point in the race to find new methodologies for the diagnosis of cancer based on chemical components found in the human body.
In conclusion, a biomedical device based on the detection of certain chemical components is considered as the definitive solution towards a new low-cost, easy-to-use, non-invasive and durable biomedical device.
We have studied the dog’s taste buds and the sensory neurons they connect to and realized what makes them fire a signal. We then decided that if the dog was able to feel it, so was our Arduino microprocessor. So, we mimicked the dog’s sensory system into an AI-based software.
In October 2017 I began the development of the first prototype of the Blue Box as a final degree project in biomedical engineering at the University of Barcelona. This demonstrated the hypothesis that “the analysis of metabolites performed in urine is significant enough to classify patients between control subjects and patients with metastatic breast cancer.” The first prototype of the Blue Box had a total value of about € 35.
To test the device, 90 human urine samples were collected from control subjects and breast cancer patients at the Sant Joan de Reus University Hospital, near Barcelona. The classification of the samples was achieved with a sensitivity of 75%.
With the ultimate goal of bringing this solution to all women in the world, I moved to California in September, which seemed like the right place and time to start pursuing this dream. Here at the University of California Irvine, I did my master’s in Embedded Cyber-physical Systems, where I met my friend Billy. He soon found out about the project and was motivated to bring his computer science expertise and help build the second functional prototype (our master’s thesis). This second prototype incorporated artificial intelligence and achieved a 95% rating. Now, we have become friends who not only enjoy working as a team but are also driven by the same passion: To give all women in the world the possibility of avoiding advanced-stage breast cancer.
The first prototype of the Blue Box was tested with urine samples from patients with metastatic breast cancer, that is, with recurrent cancer. If the ethics committee at the University of California approves the protocol, we could begin collecting urine samples from patients before they are even diagnosed. This study would allow us to know the real diagnostic capacity in patients with earlier stage breast tumors. Currently, The Blue Box correctly classifies 95% of the samples analyzed.
MM: How did you find a manufacturer and how do you plan to raise public awareness about The Blue Box?
JGB: I do not currently have a partner for larger-scale manufacturing. I am still working on the 3rd prototype of The Blue Box. When this prototype is fully optimized and we have finished the clinical studies, we will go through FDA approval. If all these result in a positive outcome, we would start looking for a logistic partner that could help us manufacture. We still have a couple of years left for this type of study, but in the meantime, you can subscribe to our newsletter and don’t miss any details of our adventure (theblueboxai.wixsite.com/hello)!
The advent of AI and its interaction with the field of medicine have revolutionized the diagnostic power of medicine. The limitations of traditional medicine have been transcended and new technologies can now see what the human eye cannot.
Our proposal is a disruptive idea, a new concept of medicine that aims to bring high technology closer to everyone. The Blue Box is a box, it is blue and can offer an early diagnosis of breast cancer. And it is through this simplicity that we intend to bring AI to every home… In short, to make AI sexy.
The James Dyson Award will help raise awareness about the Blue Box by garnering buzz around my story and providing funding to bring my invention to life. In addition to the cash prize, which will be very helpful in obtaining necessary patents for the Blue Box and moving the needle closer to bringing the invention to market, I have also enjoyed the networking opportunities the award has provided and how those have contributed to a wonderful platform to launch the Blue Box.
MM: Have you invented any other items and do you plan to keep creating, perhaps to help people detect other forms of cancer?
JGB: The Blue Box is my first invention, but I would love to think it will not be the last!
MM: How do you hope The Blue Box impacts the world and what are your biggest dreams for the system?
JGB: The Blue Box has two very specific goals that we intend to address in the long term:
1) Catalyze change toward a world in which women’s needs are fully represented in healthcare systems around the world.
2) Improve and create an opportunity for all women to have access to the breast cancer screenings they need.
Thus, The Blue Box is part of a global project, which aims to generate a change in society without distinction of ethnicity, culture, age… This project is based on the belief that breast cancer cannot be fought alone with medicine, but with society as such.
More specifically, The Blue Box would be considered a point-of-care device, that is, a low-cost and easy-to-use diagnostic method for the same patient. This type of device is very suitable to meet the needs of a medical center that does not have traditional instrumentation, such as mammography, biopsy, etc. In this case, the medical center could have a smartphone with our app, in which each patient could log in individually.
MM: How did you first hear about the James Dyson Award and what was it like to be named the winner?
JGB: A friend of mine had known the story of Sir James Dyson for some time. His life seems to me a true example of resilience and improvement. For this reason, when he told me about the James Dyson Award, I did not hesitate to apply.
A day passed in the morning: I had a call scheduled with James Dyson (company, or so I thought) to discuss my application to JDA scholarships (or so I thought). When I connected, my interlocutor had the camera turned off, but could read “James Dyson”. “It will be the company” I thought … but as soon as he turned on the camera it was clear to me: It was Sir James Dyson himself!
That day marked a before and after for The Blue Box project. The moment Sir James Dyson chose The Blue Box as the winner of the JDAs, he turned a dream (a little crazy) into a reality (quite feasible).
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JGB: During my studies in biomedical engineering at the University of Barcelona, a professor presented us with the case of Blat, a dog that could detect lung cancer by smelling its owner’s breath. This discovery set a new goal in my career: I wanted to use my engineering to reproduce the physiology of the dog on my Arduino microprocessor and a couple of sensors; and translate the olfactory cortex of the brain into a snippet of Python code.
Driven by this passion, I asked many physicians about the requirements of a hypothetical future standard for breast cancer screening. Since 2017, these have been remodeled and modified in pursuit of one ultimate goal: To change the way we, as a society, fight breast cancer. I believe that great discoveries occur when humans learn about biology and model it through hardware and software.
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To learn more, visit The Blue Box official website: theblueboxai.wixsite.com/hello
Twitter: @TheBlueBox_ai twitter.com/TheBlueBox_ai
LinkedIn: TheBlueBox-ai linkedin.com/company/thebluebox-ai