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[Health-tech Korea] Diagnosing cancer with a drop of blood

Korean medtech startup BBB to launch by year-end a self-use diagnostic device that examines blood to detect cancer markers

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles highlighting South Korea’s promising startups in the emerging sectors of digital health care and next-generation medical devices. This is the 17th installment. - Ed.

Checking for signs of cancer has long been confined to the domain of hospitals, where complex examinations are conducted. It could be an MRI, a CT scan, a lengthy blood test or a biopsy that requires harvesting a sample of tissue from the body for further examination at a lab.

But what if similar cancer diagnostics procedures could be achieved in the comfort of your home? This could be made possible by using a portable blood testing device developed by South Korean health care technology startup BBB.

Founded in 2014, Seoul-based BBB has developed a sensor-equipped portable device that examines a droplet of blood to detect cancer signals. The product, named MarkB, is slated to hit the Korean market by the end of this year.

Using the device is easy. You simply prick your fingertip with a needle and dab the blood onto the one-use testing strip. Just 30 microliters of blood -- which you get by slightly squeezing the punctured area -- is enough. The data generated is logged and kept by your doctor for monitoring.

BBB founder and CEO Choi Jae-kyu (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
BBB founder and CEO Choi Jae-kyu (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

According to BBB founder and CEO Choi Jae-kyu, the firm has positioned the product as a prognosis device. It is intended for use by post-surgery cancer patients required to undergo routine checkups every three to six months.

Though patients would still have to go to the hospital for imaging-based examinations, they could conduct blood tests in the convenience of their homes.

After accumulating positive use cases, BBB hopes to reposition MarkB as an at-home cancer prevention tool for use by anyone, the 38-year-old CEO and serial entrepreneur said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“With good references, we want to be able to position the device as a cancer prevention tool for use by any interested individual,” said Choi, a KAIST graduate with a background in electric engineering as well bio and brain engineering.

So how does it work? MarkB rests on two fundamental technologies. One is the ability to completely separate out plasma -- the part of the blood containing proteins -- from the blood. The other is using electromagnetic waves to separate out selected cancer cell-derived proteins, and detecting their density.

Identifying the density of these proteins in the blood allows doctors to determine whether cancer cells are growing or shrinking inside a patient’s body. And this is what BBB’s device can do precisely, according to Choi.

“Our device automatically separates out the plasma and captures just the desired proteins. And all of this is controlled via our biosensor. The key is that we’ve managed to miniaturize and automate procedures previously carried out by large, heavy equipment, without compromising accuracy,” Choi said.

For now, MarkB can check for five most common cancers -- colorectal cancer, liver cancer, prostate cancer, uterine and ovarian cancer as well as cancer affecting digestive organs such as the pancreas and gallbladder. The firm hopes to expand the device’s diagnostic scope in the future.

BBB's office in Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
BBB's office in Seoul (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Currently, the Korean health-tech startup is working on clinical trials for its device in partnership with Seoul University Bundang Hospital, with aims to score approval by the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

But the startup’s eventual goal is to tap into global markets. BBB is currently preparing documents and clinical trial data to get MarkB approved by medical device regulators in the US and Europe.

With the solid health care data collected by its diagnostics devices, BBB envisions the creation of a personalized health care platform based on which companies could help predict diseases and take preventive action if needed.

As one of a handful of health technology startups operating and paving the way for a new market in Korea, BBB believes it has a duty to pave the direction of the local regulatory system to regulate newly developed medical devices that do not have a precedent.

“A lot of startups in this sector tend to complain that they can’t develop new products because regulations have yet to exist. But I think the lead should be taken by the industry, and followed-up on by regulatory agencies,” the BBB CEO said.

“You first need a product, before regulations can be drawn up. When companies present devices that offer acceptable performance and usability, the regulations will naturally follow.”

BBB is already ahead in this aspect, as it has brought to market another blood testing device with success. Elemark, which measures blood glucose levels, was approved last year for use by diabetes patients.

Led by deals related to Elemark, BBB logged around 6.1 billion won ($5.71 million) in revenue last year. This year, it expects to achieve around 8 billion won in revenue, and see a major hike in earnings once MarkB sales take off, Choi said.

So far, BBB has secured around 5.5 billion won in Series A funding from various venture capital firms including Posco Venture Capital and Mirae Asset Capital. It plans to raise further capital for research and development this year.

By Sohn Ji-young (