How a 13-year-old’s trip to the doctor led to a startup driving innovation in women’s health

nVision - Surbhi

Adolescence is tough enough without the threat of cancer or the fear of being unable to have children. But for Surbhi Sarna, high school was an extra trying time thanks to a series of cysts that wouldn’t leave her ovaries alone.

Starting at age 13, she said, she experienced multiple episodes of abdominal pain caused by recurring complex ovarian cysts. Each time, Sarna would go to the doctor and undergo blood tests and ultrasounds to determine the severity of the problem, hoping to learn whether the cysts were cancerous. But each time, even though her blood tests came back normal, the doctors could never tell her with certainty that she was in the clear. It’s very difficult to determine whether a cyst is cancerous without invasive surgery and even the surgery to remove a cyst can threaten fertility, she said.

“For a 13-year-old, that’s really a big deal,” Sarna, who is now 27, told me. “I realized then that there is a big unmet need.”

Ultimately, the cysts dissolved on their own and, by the time she started her freshman year at UC Berkeley, Sarna said, they stopped developing entirely. But at that point she’d already decided that she would study bioengineering, with the goal of someday working to improve women’s health.

So many questions in women’s health

As Sarna learned, there are so many unknowns when it comes to ovarian cancer — the exact cause of the disease is a mystery, it’s symptoms are vague and it’s difficult to diagnose with certainty until it’s already in the later stages. Many other areas of women’s health, including fertility, are equally overflowing with questions.

Founded in 2010, nVision grew out of Sarna’s personal experience and work at Berkeley, as well as conversations with her father and husband, both of whom work in Silicon Valley.  The company is still just beginning to get off the ground — it just closed the second tranche of a $4.4 million Series A round last week after many talks with less sympathetic venture capitalists — but intends to develop a range of medical devices for women’s health diagnostics and treatment.

Its first products include devices for detecting fallopian tube blockage — a leading cause of infertility — and grabbing cells from a woman’s reproductive track to determine whether cancer has developed in the ovaries. Both devices will need to through the Food & Drug Administration’s approval process, and Sarna expects to make the first sale in a couple of years.

Introducing less expensive, simpler procedures

Now, the typical procedure for determining whether a woman’s fallopian tubes are clear is the hysterosalpingogram, a special X-ray test that causes discomfort for some and requires an extra expense and trip to the doctor. But Sarna said her catheter-based device that sends a tiny camera into the fallopian tube to gather images could be used by a typical OB/GYN (not a specialist) at a lower cost and with less inconvenience.

The other diagnostic device, which also uses a catheter, takes cells from a woman’s ovaries. It’s intended to give women a more accurate and less risky way to screen for ovarian cancer, and it’s also simple enough for use in an OB/GYN’s office. At the moment, current options are an inconclusive blood test or invasive and expensive surgery.

The devices challenge the traditional system of women’s health, in which women are referred to more expensive specialists and procedures for fertility and more serious issues. But Sarna said that by making the devices simple and the procedures less expensive, she hopes OB/GYNs will be able to offer the services to more women – and engage women at a deeper level.

At present, images from diagnostic procedures are saved by hospitals and doctors offices and can be a headache for patients to get their hands on. But Sarna said her longer-term goal is to introduce apps that complement each device so that women can immediately receive the data and images from their procedures.

“The unique challenge around women’s health, historically, is that women don’t talk about their conditions and they suffer silently,” said Sarna. “What I’d love to do is take data and empower the patient.”

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