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Can metastasis prevention save breast cancer patients?

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Femtech World meets the Swiss company on a mission to enable optimal breast cancer treatment and make lasting metastasis prevention a reality.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and the second most common in the US after skin cancer. The American Cancer Society suggests that in 2022 about 287,850 new cases will be diagnosed in women and other 43,250 women will die from breast cancer.

Additionally, studies have shown that an increasing number of patients are not getting the right treatment during therapy.

“Despite molecularly precise cancer tests, we have a situation where more than 50 per cent of the women diagnosed with breast cancer [in the US and Europe] are either under-treated or over-treated,” says Wolfgang Hackl, oncology scientist and founder of OncoGenomX – a Switzerland-based company that aims to create a treatment guidance software against breast cancer.

Their first product, PredictionStar, uses AI and machine learning algorithms to determine the correct cancer treatment regimen for permanent prevention metastasis. The tool essentially interprets the results of clinical and histological image assessments, tumour and blood gene tests and helps oncologists to find the optimal treatment with predictable outcomes.

“The solution that we have developed consists of four components,” Hackl explains. “Firstly, proprietary markers help us to type individual tumours and based on diagnostic properties. Then we have two types of AI-based software: one meant to achieve individualised drug-tumour matching and the other used to make outcome predictions. Lastly, we have a feedback learning solution for the continuous refinement of PredictionStar-guided therapy decision guidance.

“But we don’t leave things at predictions,” the oncologist adds. “We offer the decision-makers real-world outcome data, so that they don’t need to rely on predictions coming out of a black box. They can see recent clinical data from patients who have been treated, based on PredictionStar guidance, what the outcome was and then, they can make an informed decision.”

Hackl says that this is a move from a very “mouse-centric approach”. “We’ve been very good at mice and drug development, but not necessarily at curing patients,” he tells me.

“Current tests are very good at determining, whether a tumour is eligible for certain treatments. These tests, however, cannot predict, whether treatments will also be effective. PredictionStar predicts the effectiveness of treatments with an accuracy of 85 per cent, thus, taking oncology a step closer to the theoretical ideal of evidence-based precision cancer treatment.

“Currently, doctors and patients can learn if the tumour will be eliminated only during the treatment journey,” he continues. “The longer the tumour stays away, the higher the confidence in the treatment decision.

“The advantage of our approach is that doctors and patients would know that there’s a significant high chance the treatment will be effective before the start of the therapy, taking away the uncertainty and the randomness of treatment decisions. Imagine what this would mean for the quality of life of patients.”

Determining the optimal treatment option will not only reduce the risks of over or under-treatment for patients, but it will also diminish the costs on healthcare systems.

“Per year Europe and the US spend over $20B on breast cancer treatment. We are at the very beginning, but we think that consistent use of PredictionStar will incur significant cost savings,” Hackl points out.

The founder adds that: “In one year and a half from now we hope we’ll be ready to offer our services to pharmaceutical companies and drug developers and in two years, if everything goes by plan, we should be in a position to offer the service to cancer hospitals.”

However, stigma around medical patient data still exists. Scepticism about the supposed benefits of data sharing, fear of being disadvantaged and little confidence in data security are just a few of the reasons why some patients avoid such platforms.

“This is certainly something we still see in many countries,” says Hackl. “But we, as a company, never see the data. It will only be exposed to the algorithm. This is a very conventional approach which is used with great success and meets the requirements for the protection of data rights.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning are widely recognised as a transformative healthcare innovation. However, unless introduced thoughtfully there are risks such as automation bias and over-dependence, in addition to already well-documented generic risks associated with AI, such as data privacy, algorithmic biases and corrigibility,” he continues. “We are fully aware of these risks and will undertake adequate measures to ensure that clinicians retain autonomy over the diagnostic and therapy decision making processes.”

The company has already analysed data from more than 4,500 patients and four trials and has very high ambitions for the future. “We are very confident and we hope to get one step closer to the theoretical ideal of what it means to practice precision diagnosis and medicine as the core of personalised cancer care,” adds Hackl.

“But in the medical area, you always have to prove that your claims are the results of a well-designed, prospective clinical trial. And that’s why we’re here for.”

For more information, visit oncogenomx.ch.

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Could this app change the way we live and work?

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Imagine a tool that could help women align their daily schedules around their menstrual cycle – it exists thanks to two passionate tech entrepreneurs and start-up co-founders.

Elina Vale, chief executive officer and Rustam Galiev, chief product officer, are on a mission to dismantle society’s 24/7 work culture and replace it with an “evidence-based” approach where women can thrive – regardless of the menstrual phase they are in.

The concept, also known as cycle syncing, is a way by which women adapt their health and lifestyle habits to fit the four phases of their menstrual cycle, namely menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. During these phases, it is thought, women experience changes in key hormone levels that can affect their mood, energy and productivity.

The idea isn’t new. In fact, the practice was introduced by nutritionist Alisa Vitti in her book WomanCode in 2014.

What is new, however, is the way Vale and Galiev adjusted the method to suit women’s needs in the workplace. The founders developed an employee benefits platform that claims to combine science, coaching and artificial intelligence to help female employees improve their productivity and performance by working with their menstrual cycle. 

The app, they say, combines a to-do list, habit tracker, period tracker and mindfulness app in one tool.

“The way women’s menstrual cycle works is very different from the common nine to five routine that we, as a society, tend to prioritise. That’s what we are challenging at Essence,” says Vale.

“We aim to provide women with a tool that allows them to think [of what they could do] based on the phases of their cycle and not just in the traditional work routine.

“We are looking at things such as the type of activity that you do, the intensity, your workload and what your needs are to balance your performance and wellbeing.”

While there aren’t many scientific studies to support cycle syncing, evidence does show that hormone fluctuations affect energy, mood, appetite and sleep.

Vale says there is some research on how each phase of the menstrual cycle affects the types of activities women do. “We know, for example, that in the follicular phase it’s better to start new projects and in the luteal phase it’s better to wrap them up.”

She also says there is evidence to suggest that cultivating an inclusive workplace and actively supporting employees could improve their wellbeing and unlock their full potential.

“An inclusive workplace has been shown to improve motivation and engagement. The problem is that currently, everything in the workplace is structured in a ‘gender neutral way’, which is, by default, very male-focused. From our research, we know that most women don’t know much about their menstrual cycle, so they don’t look at the month through the four phases of the cycle.

“However, we are trying to change this perception and help women think differently.”

The end goal, the founder says, is to make employers prioritise menstrual health in the workplace and take women’s needs seriously.

“Most companies have mental health and wellbeing programmes in place – we think menstrual wellbeing should be a part of that too.”

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‘Compliance is a journey’: how femtech companies could navigate privacy and clinical safety requirements

Most femtech companies understand the importance of privacy, but experts say they often fail to address it at the development stage

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Women’s health has never seen more prominence. Since 2016, when the term “femtech” was coined, the health sector serving half of the world’s population has been on an upward trajectory.

In the course of just a few years, more than 2,000 femtech companies and apps have sprung up to address women’s needs, including tracking apps, fertility solutions and menopause platforms.

In 2022, VCs invested US$1bn of funding into femtech start-ups, the second best year on record after the US$2bn raised in 2021.

Dealroom reported that in 2023 femtech companies were worth upwards of US$28bn, while current forecasts predicted that this rapidly growing industry would be worth US$103bn by the end of 2030.

However, the “taboo” nature of women’s health and gender imbalances in investment are providing obstacles to the industry – femtech attracted only one per cent of health tech investments in 2022.

On top of that, the sector also faces significant challenges around regulatory compliance.

“Femtech companies often struggle with the secure and lawful processing of personal data and access to data,” said Amy Ford, data privacy specialist and managing director at Kaleidoscope.

“Start-ups simply don’t have the guidance and regulatory support they need when they are developing and bringing products to market.”

This is especially a problem considering that femtech apps and products are collecting and processing a wide range of sensitive personal information, said Ford.

“Not processing personal and sensitive health data in a safe and lawful way could lead to an infringement on the rights and freedoms of women. These could be loss of control over their personal data, discrimination and profiling, reputational damage, loss of privacy, limited access to services, loss of anonymity, exclusion and bias and even surveillance by authorities.

“Failure to protect users’ data could cause irrevocable damage and life-altering changes to women and their families.”

The other challenge, the data privacy specialist said, is around lack of access to data.

“Not having enough data causes a detrimental impact to the development of products and services in the femtech industry,” she explained.

“The data may be inaccurate, and companies may not have the interoperability to link it with health records, leading to an awful lot of problems and stifling innovation.”

While most femtech companies understand the importance of privacy, they often lack the knowledge and experience to address it at the development stage.

“When femtech start-ups come to me, they don’t have the time or experience to handle compliance, they have many plates spinning, – they are unsure, nervous about privacy controls going wrong and just don’t know what to do,” said Ford.

“I think the hope and want is there, but they just need a little bit of help.”

There are ways, however, in which companies can access support and equip themselves with the knowledge they need to navigate privacy and clinical requirements.

London-based Kaleidoscope has data privacy and clinical safety experts who specialise in health, health tech and life sciences and is one of the few consulting firms specifically helping femtech companies optimise data protection, clinical safety and risk management.

The organisation, led by Ford, supports start-ups in achieving their strategic objectives, while lawfully and ethically processing personal data, assuring their digital products are clinically safe for deployment and ensuring compliance with legislation.

The team have in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the lawful utilisation and sharing of personal and sensitive data, experienced clinicians with a passion for digital safety, and have created robust governance approaches and systems that provide effective technical and organisational controls for organisations.

“Compliance is a journey and it is an ambition of mine to help and support femtech companies go through the ever-changing and complex regulatory area,” said Ford.

“By working with femtech organisations, we are sharing and transferring our knowledge and we are able to set up an effective privacy programme to help them understand what they need to do and eventually run their own privacy operations.”

Kaleidoscope’s mission, she said, is to ensure that the products that are brought to market are lawful and safe.

“The key is to build trust and provide much needed support to women going through their personal journeys at every stage of life. And that’s why we are here for start-ups.”

To help businesses navigate the complexities of privacy and clinical safety, Kaleidoscope is providing free webinars tailored to femtech companies. To find out more, visit femtechworld.co.uk/events.

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What Iceland can teach the world about gender equality in tech

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Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir speaking at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards in Reykjavík

The recent surge in artificial intelligence (AI) is reviving the tech industry, but gender bias is preventing women from joining the sector. Sorina Mihaila travelled to Reykjavík to find out what needs to change.

When, as a 24-year-old lawyer, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir ran as the secretary of the Independence Party in Iceland she had one goal: to make an impact.

Eight years later, in a packed conference hall in her native Reykjavík, Sigurbjörnsdóttir, now Iceland’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, maintained she has the same mission.

“I was lucky to be born in a world where a female was president of Iceland,” she told a crowd of 200+ delegates at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards, referring to Iceland’s former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first elected female head of state in the world.

“Icelandic women have changed the world and I believe we can do it again.”

In the light of October’s “kvennafrí”, the country’s first full-day women’s strike since 1975 when women stopped work in protest at gender inequality, Sigurbjörnsdóttir echoed many Icelandic women’s view when she said equality is still far from being achieved. 

“Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum for 14 years in a row. But we need to do more,” she explained.

Touching on the role models that helped her become the person that she is today, Sigurbjörnsdóttir told the audience that she believes in innovation and she believes progress in innovation means recognising women for their contributions.

It was truly an empowering atmosphere – a beautiful way of celebrating women in the world’s most gender-equal country.

As I’ve come to realise during my time in Iceland, Icelanders are receptive to innovation and therefore adoption of new technology in this small island nation happens quickly. Focusing on women in tech feels, in this context, not only necessary but essential.

One organisation that caught my eye in this sense was WomenTechIceland, the non-profit behind this year’s Nordic Women in Tech Awards.

Started as a Facebook group, WomenTechIceland was officially registered as a non-profit organisation in 2021 by founders Paula Gould and Valenttina Griffin and dedicated its work towards encouraging equality in the tech industry.

Since 2017, the organisation has been working with visiting businesses, dignitaries, personas and influential voices in tech to host special events, panel discussions and online events to connect Iceland’s tech ecosystem with the global tech community.

Sigurbjörnsdóttir echoed many Icelandic women’s view when she said equality is still far from being achieved

Reykjavík-based venture capital firm Crowberry Capital is too on a mission to support women building businesses around technology advances.

As the only major Nordic venture fund headed by an all-female team, the firm has achieved recognition for focusing on backing founders who have traditionally not had access to capital.

In 2021 the company, led by founders Hekla Arnardottir, Helga Valfells and Jenny Ruth Hrafnsdottir, launched a US$90m fund to invest in technology start-ups in the Nordics, with a focus on supporting businesses in emerging tech sectors, with a particular emphasis on encouraging inclusivity.

Their reason? “To demonstrate that the region can also show the way in terms of inventive venture support.”

Whether it’s IT, sustainability, femtech or digital health, the tech industry unarguably needs more gender diversity to continue thriving.

For starters, gender diversity encourages divergent ways of thinking, which can improve quality in the ideas output. This, in turn, drives innovation and growth.

Countries like Iceland have shown us that improving gender equality is a great place to start, but there’s still some way to go.

Women must be able to see that they can have an exciting career in technology and succeed. That means fostering an inclusive work culture, advocating for better representation and introducing more family-friendly policies.

As minister Sigurbjörnsdóttir rightly put it on stage: “If we want to make an impact, we need to engage, participate, campaign and put words into action.”

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