The box that detects cancer
It all started with a dog, Blat. A professor at the University of Barcelona told his students about a study in which the animal was able to detect if someone had lung cancer just by smelling their breath. It was almost a revelation for Judit Giró (Vallmoll, 1996). "This discovery marked a new goal: to use my engineering to reproduce the dog's physiology on a microprocessor and a pair of sensors," she recalls.
In this mix between artificial and natural intelligence, this young biomedical engineer has found a gold mine to launch her dazzling start-up career. "I think great discoveries happen when humans learn about biology and model it through hardware and software," she says.
That ended up being a final degree project, but it did not stop there. She completed a master's degree at the University of California, investigated at the clinical level and detected a certain frustration among the medical staff, feeling that they were not giving enough additional tools to patients to tackle breast cancer.
All that adventure ended up giving shape to The Blue Box, a 'startup' that is also a revolutionary device: all you have to do is introduce a urine sample inside the box to find out, in a matter of minutes, if you have cancer or not. It will be similar to a pregnancy test. The reaction of some sensors will send the information to the mobile with bluetooth and from there to the cloud. “We are in the development process, still far from having the project on the market. We detect 95% of cases when the cancer is advanced but only 65% of those that are in that easy initial stage. We are in the last phases to reach a higher level and be able to use it in clinical practice », he says.
In five hospitals, including Joan XXIII in Tarragona and Sant Joan in Reus, samples are being tested to try to calibrate and fine-tune a device that "in the best case scenario, would be released on the market in 2024." “We are asking doctors how we could improve the technology,” says Judit, who is enthusiastic about science and outreach (she has participated in TEDx talks) and more passionate about mathematics than biology. Curiously enough, a previous milestone on the road had been set by another professor, in this case from Biology. It was 2013 and Judit attended a class on how the human body converts a breadcrumb into 265 kilocalories with little loss of energy.
The lesson of the mitochondria
Giró, then still a teenager, was enthralled by how mitochondria are able to perform that process by working "with an efficiency that no human-designed machine has achieved or is likely to achieve." "This lesson sparked in me a certain fascination that still amazes me, but it also led to a certain frustration with the unpredictable nature of biology," she is candid. Where was the solution to that dilemma? "In biomedical engineering, because there had to be a way to explain human biology with mathematics."
It also motivates him to contribute to medical progress with such a direct impact on patients. “We would be talking about a second test, an additional layer of protection that would be done in hospitals, as a complement to mammography. But it is important to have this technology, because there are many young women who are not included in health programs. There are also breasts that, due to the density of their tissues, do not have a good reading on the mammogram.
A cheap and easy method to use
Judit, whose mother also fell ill with this ailment, is clear that "there is a real and urgent need for a new method of detecting breast cancer that is non-invasive, low-cost and easy to use." Judit dreams of that long-term scenario in which "the way society fights against breast cancer changes and ensures that more women can avoid an advanced diagnosis, hopefully that time can come soon."
This will culminate a process that continues to receive recognition. She has been the first Spanish to win the James Dyson Award contest, which promotes young engineering students. Blue Box was chosen among the 20 most disruptive startups in the world and the device was presented at Mobile. "All this makes us feel proud, but the real satisfaction will come when there are doctors who can use this method," she says. Her honor also comes from home. In 2021 she received the Prize for Research, Innovation and Creativity from the Chamber of Commerce of Valls. She also got a scholarship from the Diputació de Tarragona.
Judit is ambitious and aspires to more research, starting from concrete teachings and learning. The clues that Blat the dog or some breadcrumbs gave him one day also captivated him in the book Biophysicsby Roland Glaser. There he read that "a salmon swims upstream more efficiently than any ship ever built by humans." That phrase, obvious and innocuous in appearance, was another turning point that later led to the dog and to copy his olfactory cortex; such as the historical tendency to diagnose uncontrolled diabetes through a sweet taste in the urine. That is her fate and her method of success, where the Tarragona woman develops learning from biology to find answers, almost like a visionary.