Tech takes on autopsies


(From left) Mathavan, iGene's Forensic Scientist Dr Nor Amira Ismail look on as iGene Medical Research Scientist Dr Hemanth S Naik demonstrates how a digital autopsy is done.

IN 44 BC Julius Caesar was killed in front of hundreds of witnesses near the Senate in Rome. A group of Roman senators led by Brutus and Cassius violently plunged their blades into him, resulting in 23 stab wounds.

Roman physician Antistius performed an autopsy and found that of the 23 wounds, none were fatal except the second wound in the breast.

Was he right? The crime which took place more than 2,000 years ago serves as a lesson to criminologists, historians and even doctors who learn from it as part of the evolution of forensic science and medical discovery.

That autopsy report was possibly history’s first recorded application of medical knowledge to a homicide investigation and also the first record in history of a pathologist giving an opinion as an expert witness.

This gave rise to the term “forensic” in Latin which means “before the forum”, which is where Antistius delivered his opinion.

In late 2000, Mathavan A. Chandran, chief executive officer of the Infovalley Group of Companies was motivated by advancements in information technology and biotechnology.

“I’ve always asked whether IT or digital technology could change equations? Could a totally new environment, that is not yet in existence be created digitally?” Mathavan said.

This led to the incorporation of Infovalley Sdn Bhd as a technology incubator focusing on life sciences in 2000.

The company, which focuses on bioinformatics, biotechnology and medical informatics, operates as a number of loosely linked “cells” that explores a number of ideas.

“In essence we try out a number of ideas or approaches before a big go or no-go decision is made on each initiative. This approach lowers operational costs and allows us to quickly react to the changing potential markets,” he told Metrobiz.

Changing forensics

In 2005, Mathavan incorporated iGene Sdn Bhd and started a research group to crate enterprise software for a digital autopsy ecosystem after being inspired by some of the leading thinkers in the field of forensics.

He coined the term “digital autopsy” to describe the technologies behind this initiative.

An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, is a surgical procedure that consists of the examination of a body to determine the cause and manner of death, whether due to diseases or injuries. The procedure is performed by a medical doctor called a pathologist.

“We needed software that could allow us to visualise a body which has no body heat, might be decomposed, mutilated or burnt,” he said.

In the research and development stage of the digital autopsy system, iGene received funding from the Malaysian Government.This was eventually followed by the first tranche of an equity investment by Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd (MavCap).

This investment of RM7.5mil in iGene for a 15% stake paved the way for the company to move into full commercialisation.

In 2010, it won an open tender to deploy a RM17mil turnkey contract for the Forensic Unit of Kuala Lumpur Hospital, which is also the main centre for The National Institute of Forensic Medicine (NIFM).

The new Digital Autopsy Facility (DAF) covers approximately 1,000sq ft of space that features the latest technology in post-mortem procedures.

A digital autopsy is done with a three-dimensional scan of the body using a computed tomography (CT) scanner. Coupled with iGene’s visualisation software, a pathologist can conduct a full, non-invasive digital post-mortem.

This is part of a full spectrum forensice service where evidence is gathered from the crime scene and taken to labs for digital autopsy, and then used for presentation, be it for research, education or the courts.

“Some interference from clients during the construction of the facility may take place, and we have find ways to adjust to their demands while ensuring the functionality is not compromised,” he said.

One advantage of a digital autopsy is its ability to scan bodies in body bags. This way the pathologist does not contaminate the body. At at the same time, the pathologist is not be exposed to pathogens that may come from the body being examined.

“The approach of being able to scan the body within the body bag itself is a new milestone as the body is respected from religious point of view, social needs and most importantly it avoids possible tampering with the main evidence,” Mathavan said.

Subsequently, with the images and generated, the pathologist can dissect the body digitally, from skin to the skeleton. They could also reverse the steps should they think that it was a mistake.

Apart from that, the company also created a forensic science kit consisting of a tripod, lenses and computer software that functions as crime scene investigation toolkit.

This new approach allows police teams to digitally capture the scene of death or crime, thus making documentation, collection of evidence and investigation more efficient and the presentation of the findings more precise.

Police forensic teams with training to use the equipment are now able to capture a crime scene in 3D in an unprejudiced manner. Recently, iGene delivered the initial batch of Infovalley’s Crime Scene Investigation Toolkits to the Royal Malaysian Police’s forensic team for nation wide use.

Mathavan said the delivery of the kits was a milestone in the modernisation of police investigation methods, especially since it is being achieved with the help of Malaysian made technology.

High-powered computing

To ensure integrity of the data collected, Mathavan said the company is using “singular computing” and not distributed computing which could lead to questions about the integrity of the data.

The software is accredited by the Software Engineering Institute of the US and is certified Level III under the Capability Maturity Model Integration process required for many US government projects.This is to ensure that the software is developed to an international standard adhering to all best practices in software development.

He said the entire process involves more people checking the reliability of the software and such rigorous testing and development processes increases the man-hours needed to complete the project.

Each server used to store information from the digital autopsies and crime scene toolkits is able to store many terabytes of data.

The use of the company’s products in Malaysia has drawn the attention of the UK government.

“It was of great interest to them how the discoveries and evidence could be presented elegantly and accurately in courts,” Mathavan said.

Early last year, the Malaysian Innovation Agency (AIM), the government body tasked with promoting an innovation-based economy invested RM70mil for a 20% stake in iGene. This values iGene at RM350mil.

The investment is part of a deal to build a network of 18 Digital Autopsy Facilities (DAF) in the UK, the first of which was launched in Sheffield, in late November last year.

The post-mortem facility in Sheffield’s Medico-Legal Centre cost £3mil (RM16.4mil). The other facilities to be built will be connected to one control system and are targeted to be completed by December next year.

“We were invited for a number of consultations and given the opportunity to make suggestions to authorities, politicians, medico-legal experts, charitable organisations and eventually we got to know the implementation possibilities ,” Mathavan said.

Because of the larger project, iGene London Ltd was incorporated and the wholly owned subsidiary of iGene Sdn Bhd will build, own and manage the network of 18 facilities covering England and Wales. The investment will increase to £50mil over the next two years.

The project also involves training and supporting the pathology teams in the UK and to recruit at least 14 other highly skilled support staff on the payroll of iGene.

Mathavan said that iGene’s UK business had come about after the UK’s Justice Ministry issued new guidelines on digital autopsies as part of its medico-legal reformation process.

“In UK, more than 200,000 cases are categorised as medico-legal and requiring autopsies. Our revenue is derived from the fees of £500 per case,” he said.

The next DAF is expected to be commissioned at the Bradford Public Mortuary in June this year. Deployment will also start very soon at Birmingham, Greenwich, Bristol, Fulham and Hammersmith and Sandwell. All these will form a network of 18 facilities that will be built for England and Wales by mid 2015.

The digital future

After a career in various multinational companies in the chemicals and investment industry, Mathavan self funded the company until it received an initial research grant of RM3mil from the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry in 2004 to work on a genetic testing kit which led to the creation of molecular screening technologies that can look at complex genetic-related diseases such as high cholesterol and cancer.

Currently keen on growing the DAF business, the company is looking into expanding to the US and Russia via joint ventures.

Mathavan said, for the US, Infovalley is in talks with a venture capital firm.

If successful, a joint venture with the venture capital firm would open a significant new market for Infovalley.

In Russia, the company is looking for potential partners in the bereavement industry.

Mathavan said the deals, totalling RM100mil, to build 45 DAFs in Russia and the US is expected to be realised within the next two years.

Educated in biochemistry and chemistry, Mathavan has seen the company grow from two people to 80 today, comprising doctors, pathologists, software engineers, forensic scientists, molecular biologists and business managers and administrative staff.

iGene, the company that handles the digital autopsy segment and the platform technology has been approached by a few international advisors on listing possibilities internationally and Mathavan said they are evaluating all possibilities.

They are also finalising a contract with Abu Dhabi ‘s Interior Ministry to deploy a facility for the Abu Dhabi Police Group Headquarters.


   

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