Israeli company Sight Diagnostics is pioneering finger-prick blood test and desktop analyzer technology. Just don’t go calling them the new Theranos

 

“For maybe 200 years, blood tests were done by humans observing blood under a microscope,” says Yossi Pollak, Co-Founder and CEO of Sight Diagnostics, an Israeli blood testing startup founded in 2011. “We are now replacing the human eyes with machine vision”. Pollak is referring to OLO, the company’s blood analyzer which leverages imaging-based automatic inspection and analysis technology to identify and count different blood cell types (red blood cells; white blood cells and platelets) and anomalies within them.

Specifically, OLO creates a digital version of a person’s blood by capturing about 1000 highly detailed images. The algorithms then interpret these images by counting the number of cells present. OLO can deliver a person’s full blood count by measuring 19 different blood parameters under 10 minutes via two drops of blood obtained either from finger pricking or a venous sample.

The process requires users to unwrap a small package containing a cartridge to hold their blood samples and then insert it into OLO. Users then have to answer questions on a touch screen before setting the machine to work. Ironically, it’s a similar process to the demonstrations performed for venture capitalists by the disgraced founder of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, as described in the bestselling book Bad Blood by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou.

Indeed, both Theranos and Sight share a similar vision: To develop a desktop version of a blood analyzer that can produce diagnoses from finger-prick samples. However that’s where any similarities end as Theranos’ technology was proven not to work and the company, once valued at $9 billion and endorsed by prominent business and political figures, is now defunct with Holmes facing federal criminal charges.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel Levner, Co-Founder of Sight Diagnostics and a former scientist at the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, is used to explaining why Sight is not Theranos 2.0. “Theranos turned out to be such a farce. But as soon as we demonstrate we’re real scientists who are playing by the book, we get around those questions pretty quickly,” Levner said.

He pointed out that while Holmes wanted to achieve a series of tests and diagnoses with one finger prick, Sight does not. “We have a platform that can do a lot of tests: once you image the blood, you can analyze it in all sorts of different ways,” Levner added. “But we want to do one at a time, with full clinical validation, and increase the portfolio gradually”. Levner felt the ‘Theranos effect’ was damaging the whole blood testing industry.

When Theranos failed, investors winced at the sight of blood testing businesses. Not many thought the problems were unique to Theranos and Holmes was accountable and accused of being “a zealot chasing a dream without the science or ethics to carry her there.” Nonetheless, some pathologists remained unconvinced because capillary blood obtained from finger pricks is not the same as venous samples in terms of quality and volume. Capillary blood tends to be tainted by cells and tissues in the body.

Levner acknowledged the known discrepancies and test limits but emphasised that Sight would continue working on improving both the technology and OLO. “We are a different story from Theranos. We’re both saying we want to make testing easier and consolidate as many tests as possible in the same instrument. But their approach was all-or-nothing, and what we’re saying is we have a system that will be able to do many different tests, but we’re going to be diligent about it.”

Sight’s determination to set themselves apart is undeniable. OLO secured the 510(k) per-market clearance from the FDA in May 2019 after completing clinical trials in Boston Children’s Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center and Tricore Labs. Sight also received $71 million Series D funding last August as the company planned to create a series of diagnostic products driven by AI.

Since March 2020, Israel’s flagship government-run hospital Sheba Tel Hashomer has been using OLO to conduct complete blood count tests to monitor and treat its COVID-19 patients. The compact design of OLO makes it relatively easy for rapid set up in a setting reserved for contagious blood samples. It also eliminates risks of processing these samples alongside regular lab samples.

“Typically, monitoring a patient infected with a virus like COVID-19 would involve taking a blood sample from the infected individual with a needle, labeling vials of drawn blood, sending those vials to a lab outside of the quarantine zone, and receiving the results of the test an hour or more later,” Pollak explained. “OLO gives healthcare providers the ability to complete the needed course of action within a self-contained machine”.

Pollak, who used to work for Mobileye, an automotive computer vision developer that was bought over by Intel for $15.3 billion in 2017, believes looking at complete blood count is just the beginning. He plans to deploy more than 1000 units of OLO to global healthcare providers and partners in the coming years to gather sufficient data and underline the severity of the novel coronavirus and other diseases.

“We’ve just scratched the surface of the ability of AI to help with blood diagnostics,” Pollak added. “Especially, now, there’s so much value around COVID in decentralizing diagnostics and blood tests. I think there’s a lot of potential and value we can bring if we just think about how to keep people outside of hospitals to reduce the risks of transmission while receiving the blood tests they need.”