Akash Manoj has invented a skin patch that can detect a silent heart attack 6 hours before it happens. Nikita Puri reports on the innovation that's already received clinical validation and the boy behind it.
"FABP3 is a protein that's found at levels around 75 ng/ml in a normal person," says Akash Manoj. He speaks with the ease of a medical researcher.
"At the onset of cardiac ischemia, the levels of this protein increase alarmingly," he continues. Manoj is only 16 years old.
This is the teenager whose invention -- a skin patch that can detect a silent heart attack six hours before it happens -- could revolutionise healthcare.
Manoj's innovation has already received clinical validation from the Tokyo University of Science, London's Royal Society of Medicine and Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Recently, when President Ram Nath Kovind was acknowledging children of exceptional abilities with national awards, Manoj bagged the gold.
Earlier this year, Manoj also stayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan for two weeks as an "innovation scholar" on the invitation of former president Pranab Mukherjee.
"All of this started when my grandfather died of a silent heart attack," says Manoj. He was 13 at the time.
A silent heart attack refers to the condition when an attack comes on without visible symptoms like chest pains.
"When tragedy struck so close to home, I knew I needed to learn more," says the Class XI student enrolled at Ashok Leyland School in Hosur, Tamil Nadu.
The teen's father, Manoj Prabhakar, is a businessman; his mother Somi is a homemaker.
Realising that reading medical journals online was expensive, he began to look at other avenues.
"That part was easy," says Manoj, shrugging off the topic. But sample this: to gain access to the laboratories at Bengaluru's Indian Institute of Science, Manoj wrote to about 200 professors. Only one responded favourably.
Now, he is happy to have access to "laboratories of national importance".
Ashutosh Sharma, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, describes Manoj as "an exceptional young man of keen intellect" who has a "dragon's drive".
This drive shows in his work: when Manoj realised that his "brilliant idea had a billion holes in it," he put down his tennis racket in favour of medical literature for the next 23 months.
This is how the patch works: it emits a small amount of positive charge, which attracts the negatively-charged FABP3 protein, a biomarker for heart attacks. If analysis shows an increased level of the protein, a heart attack is underway.
Despite clinical validation, not everyone is convinced of the patch's effectiveness.
"No single biomarker can be 100 per cent reliable," says U Natarajan, head of adult cardiology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi. "When it's normal, it may truly mean absence of disease, but when abnormal, it may not necessarily mean the presence of disease."
The analysis of FABP3 needs a blood sample, says Natarajan.
So when "the young genius says he can non-invasively assess elevation of this protein, it's quite amazing. But he is oversimplifying things," says Natarajan.
Nevertheless, Manoj's vision for the future does hold promise, he adds.
The teen is now waiting for his global patent to come through.
He's also preparing for his 2019 board exams, as well as gearing up to represent India at the Intel International Science and Engineering, the world's largest pre-college science fair, in Pittsburgh in 2018. (This is the same event where Bengaluru's Sahithi Pingali bagged the honour of having a planet named after her.)
Given that a new medical aid has to go through a long process of trials and approvals, it's likely to be some time before Manoj's prototype is developed for public use. But in the meantime, one can at least revel in Manoj's vision.
"If you can detect a heart attack before it happens, there'd be no need for expensive surgeries, you can address the condition with medicines alone."