DUBAI: Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are expected to completely transform the way people live, work and do business. But one area where exciting developments are already becoming a reality is health.
Osh Agabi, from Nigeria, received funding from the tech giants of Silicon Valley to develop his “clinical cyborg” – an innovation that aims to detect more than 4,000 smells simultaneously, potentially leading to the diagnosis of various diseases.
Agabi has caught the attention of American venture capitalists impressed by its study of human cells grown on a computer chip.
“One thing that has always been a primary driver for me is, how does the human body basically work?” he told Arab News.
“How is it possible that we are capable of so many things? A human being is essentially a machine, but a very advanced machine.
Of course, even the most sophisticated machines can malfunction from time to time, which means that the medical tools needed to diagnose and fix these issues must evolve and progress.
With that in mind, Agabi started her own business in 2017, named Koniku – which translates to “immortal” in the Yoruba dialect of Nigeria – specializing in robotics and synthetic neurobiology.
Among its recent creations is the Koniku Kore, which the company claims is capable of detecting and interpreting 4,096 different smells at the same time.
“At any given moment, you are exhaling literally thousands of different smells, and those different smells give us an indication of the state of your health,” Agabi said.
“If you have a disease, there is an olfactory signature associated with it. So now we have a platform that could potentially be scaled around the world to deliver comprehensive clinical-grade data to everyone’s bathroom, collecting breath in real time and making every individual the CEO of his health.
Scientists have long recognized the ability of dogs to sniff out human emotions such as fear and sadness and even detect certain cancers and other diseases.
Agabi and his team isolated similar brain cells from mice, genetically engineered them to carry proteins that allow them to smell the contents of the air, and inserted them into a Koniku chip.
The chip is then placed inside the Koniku Kore, which collects air through a mechanical pump and transmits it to the cells. The cells then detect the odor and emit signals which are interpreted by the device’s on-board computer. Weighing just 700 grams, the device is ideal for home use, the company says.
“Our goal, by the end of this decade, is to have our technology in 10 million homes to analyze the disease in real time,” said Agabi.
Some scientists warn that fusing natural proteins with silicon circuitry is a daunting task, citing the fragility of cells and the complexity of their interactions with chemicals.
A 2020 CNN web report on Koniku quoted Timothy Swager, a chemistry professor at MIT, as saying that achieving what the company claims would require “a technical miracle.”
Agabi, who obtained a master’s degree in bioengineering from Imperial College London and later a doctorate. in computational neuroscience and bioengineering at ETH Zurich, intends to present his invention to potential investors at the upcoming Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.
“It’s the thing that wakes me up every morning and I’m excited about it,” he said.
Agabi is likely to find an enthusiastic crowd of potential investors. It won a startup competition organized by the Misk Global Forum in Saudi Arabia two years ago.
“This is something that I feel very privileged to do as a person from my background, born and raised in Lagos but mainly educated in Europe and now in the United States, extending this technology to a global audience,” said he declared.
Given the health challenges posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and growing commercial interest in home and wearable health technologies, Agabi believes there is a market ready for it to be created.
The device is currently in clinical trials with Treximo and the University of Southern Nevada. Given its potential application as a rapid detection test for COVID-19, Koniku hopes to obtain emergency use authorization for its product in the near future. From there, the sky is the limit for a whole new range of bio- and neuro-tech.
“Synthetic neurobiology and biotechnology will be important,” Agabi said. “When we merged biotechnology or synthetic biology with data, machine learning and AI, what is possible is unprecedented. It will be the next big thing.
Koniku’s customers to date include Airbus, which uses the technology to detect explosive compounds, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world’s largest maker of scientific equipment, to detect fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs.
Saudi Arabia’s major oil companies are also in talks with Koniku to use the technology to detect benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene.
“During the process of refining petroleum and other chemical compounds, there are compounds that are emitted which could be carcinogenic to human beings, which decrease the quality of life of people, make the place smell bad. , and so on, “Agabi said.
“This is what we have with Exxon Mobil, for example, and for the methane emissions and for all the compounds that are by-products of the oil and gas industry that decrease the quality of life in the area where we work.”
Koniku has also explored several possibilities for applying its innovations in oil exploration. “Think of our technology as an ‘olfactory cyborg’, similar to a camera on your phone, for security, for filming or viewing,” Agabi said.
“You can use this ‘scent cyborg’ for many other applications across the spectrum. But our most powerful application and what our vision aims to bring to this world is the diagnosis of diseases on a global scale. “
For Agabi, the pandemic has made it clear that the world needs a global disease surveillance system, where respiratory signatures, abnormal rates of spread and growth can be detected. By doing so, illness, death and economic damage could be avoided.
“It is an unfortunate crisis that has cost a lot of lives and heartache,” he said.
“But one of the things we can learn from this is the need for a global disease surveillance system through which we can assess the health of people in different cities or states.”
In an increasingly interconnected world, Agabi argues that every individual has the potential to be a biological weapon until proven guilty. The only way to make this transparency possible is to develop a technology stack capable of analyzing the health of people on a global scale.
“This is what Koniku presents itself,” Agabi said. “This is what we are looking for partnerships on. But it’s our larger vision, which, with the right partners and the right resources, we can achieve. This is why I am very excited to return to the region and form strong partnerships to develop this.