In 1998, Robin Wiscovitch came to Costa Rica to retire after a successful career in the United States. During the more than 30 years he worked in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries, Wiscovitch founded the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based diabetes management company Home Diagnostics and developed the glucose meter test strip. By the time he retired, the company was listed on the NASDAQ stock market and had changed its name to Nipro Diagnostics.
When Wiscovitch moved to Costa Rica, he wasn’t yet ready to fully retire. So he started teaching chemistry at the National University. There he met a group of enthusiastic scientists who were eager to develop a new scientific breakthrough.
He met doctors Roy Mora and Guillermo Montero and researcher Juan Valdéz, who had been developing an innovative medical product. In the United States, an alternative to the Pap smear, liquid cytology, had been invented, but its high cost made it unaffordable to most people. Mora and Montero were convinced that they could find a more affordable solution. For more than a decade, they spent nights in a research lab trying to make liquid cytology a more plausible alternative to the 80-year-old Pap smear.
“When working as a general doctor I had to do several home visits. One day I visited a 26-year-old woman in her house. She was single with three children, and she rented a patio with a single bed that was in very poor condition. She had cervical cancer and one week after my visit she died,” Mora said.
It was a turning point in the doctor’s life – he vowed to work on an early-detection method to diagnose cervical cancer.
His many years in the lab finally paid off when in 2002, Wiscovitch, Mora, Montero and Valdez founded the company BioTD and patented the product CitoFem.
The CitoFem method utilizes an ergonomic brush that reaches the canal of the cervix where better cell samples can be obtained. The brush has a detachable tip that falls in a patented solution where interferences like fiber and blood are separated from cell matter. A drop of cell content in a slide is enough to scan the sample under a microscope and determine whether or not the patient could present a cancerous anomaly. With a traditional Pap smear, a doctor brushes the whole surface of the slide with the sample from the patient’s cervix.
Usually, a doctor takes five minutes to analyze an entire slide under the microscope. With CitoFem, that same process takes less than a minute. CitoFem makes cancer cells more visible for the physician at the other side of the microscope, making early cancer screening more likely.
In Costa Rica, a majority of pathology labs are already using CitoFem’s liquid cytology. The product recently helped BioTD win the Jorge Manuel Dengo Award for innovation and use of technology. The award is given by the Estrategia Siglo XXI Association, an initiative with more than 200 professionals who promote science and technology as development tools in Costa Rica.
The company is now exporting that success to hospitals and clinics in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama.
Last year, the company sold more than 20,000 tests. In the first three months of 2011, the number of sales has increased to more than 30,000 units. By the month of December, BioTD hopes to sell more than 100,000 CitoFem tests in the region.
“We recently received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to market this device in the U.S. It is a big step for our company, since we could be increasing our production by 30 fold by the beginning of 2012,” Wiscovitch said. The company is also targeting Canadian and Brazilian markets before going global.
BioTD is negotiating with the Costa Rican Social Security System (Caja) to utilize liquid cytology in all public hospitals and clinics.
“Hearing back from the Caja is a long process, but for us it is a vital step toward marketing a product abroad,” Wiscovitch said. “It is important we have the support of the country where the product was created.”
With the recognition that comes with winning a prestigious national award like the Jorge Manuel Dengo prize, BioTD hopes to garner more government support for the project. Adopting CitoFem technology into the Caja would translate into more accurate diagnoses for patients and greater savings for the Caja.
BioTD’s production plant is in Barreal, a district in Heredia north of San José, where the company manufactures more than 20,000 daily CitoFem units.
This story corrects a previous version that incorrectly stated that the Ministry of Science and Technology issues the Jorge Manuel Dengo Award. The award is given by the Estrategia Siglo XXI Association. We regret the error.