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.
What Iceland can teach the world about gender equality in tech
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.
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.”
‘I went undiagnosed for 15 years’ – the researcher leading the fight against endometriosis
The lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Dora Koller to study the condition herself
When Dora Koller noticed her first endometriosis symptoms, she was 14, but it wasn’t until she turned 29 that she got a diagnosis.
“They say diagnosis time is between four and 11 years. In my case, it was 15,” she explains.
One might have thought her background would have made a difference – Dora is a postdoctoral researcher in computational genomics at Yale University and the University of Barcelona. However, it didn’t.
“I had to keep insisting because I knew something was wrong,” she says.
“I understand biology, but I can’t imagine how it must be for someone who doesn’t have my background.”
One in 10 women of reproductive age has endometriosis, yet often their primary care doctors do not know what it is and the specialists to whom they are sent are ill-informed.
Vast numbers of women go undiagnosed or under-treated, with some scientists arguing endometriosis is an example of “undone science”. However, Koller thinks the issue goes beyond research.
“Often patients with endometriosis get diagnosed when they present with infertility and the fact that women are not properly represented in the medical profession is partly responsible for that,” she says.
“Gynaecology has been a very male-dominated field and [conditions like endometriosis] have not been a priority. The priority was for us to procreate. When that didn’t happen, they may have started thinking about what’s happening to us. Otherwise, pain wasn’t important.”
The under-representation of women, the lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Koller to study the condition herself.
“I work in the field of psychiatry, but having endometriosis made me interested in knowing as much as possible about it,” she says.
“I wanted to connect the two and understand the link between endometriosis and mental health.”
Her latest research – the largest epidemiological study to date on the psychiatric factors that can accompany endometriosis – has demonstrated that depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are not only a result of the chronic pain endometriosis generates, but also have their own underlying genetic mechanisms.
“It’s a great result, because now we can say that it’s not women’s fault.
“For a long time, researchers thought endometriosis was just a gynaecological disease — that it didn’t affect anything but female reproduction, and so women were often only treated when they presented with infertility.
“Now, we have to acknowledge that the effects of endometriosis extend far beyond reproduction.”
Although she thinks understanding the impact of endometriosis is important, Koller says diagnosis and treatment should remain a priority.
“The fact that it’s 2023 and the only available diagnostic method for endometriosis is surgery is unacceptable.”
‘This is not just a conversation between scientists’
There is still a long way to go to address the challenges in diagnosing and managing endometriosis, but by raising awareness the researcher believes we can open up the conversation.
“I always like to talk about this based on what happened 10 years ago with breast cancer,” she says.
“We saw women and campaigners talking about breast cancer and now everyone is aware how common it is. I think something similar is happening with endometriosis.”
However, not all countries are involved in this discussion. According to the World Health Organization, in many places, the general public and healthcare providers are not aware that life-altering pelvic pain is not normal, leading to a normalisation and stigmatisation of endometriosis.
“The change is happening mostly in the West, but we need to make more efforts to bring it everywhere and raise awareness everywhere,” Koller agrees.
“Most of the things [we are seeing] appear in English or Spanish which makes it harder to reach people who don’t speak those languages. We need to translate that information to other languages to reach as many people as possible.
“Scientists, myself included, also need to work on translating the information to the public, because often we’re using difficult language that people can’t understand.
“This is not just a conversation between scientists. This is a conversation that needs to involve patients and the general public.”
Female empowerment: A bra for the pelvic floor? Yes, please
Your pelvic floor is essential to daily function. So why are we still not talking about it?
We know how vital your bra is. What if we told you there’s one for your pelvic floor? Sorina Mihaila speaks to the founders behind the groundbreaking innovation.
Pelvic floor health is a critical aspect of a woman’s overall wellbeing. The pelvic floor muscles, located at the base of the pelvis, consists of muscles and connective tissues that support important organs, including the bladder, bowel and reproductive organs.
Weak or dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles can lead to a range of health issues, including urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse and sexual dysfunction.
Despite this, a UK survey found that 69 per cent of women had not spoken to their health professional about their pelvic floor health. In many cultures, it is still considered taboo or embarrassing, leading to shame and a lack of discussion about it.
Anna Maria Ullmann, Yair Kira and Kaven Baessler, founders of the Berlin-based start-up YoniCore, think the stigma and lack of awareness are the biggest obstacles preventing women from seeking help.
“Many women are simply not used to take care of their pelvic floor and look at conditions affecting their pelvic floor,” says Ullmann.
With little innovation happening in this space, the trio is committed to disrupting the market and improving the quality of life of millions of women. Their product? A small device that supports the pelvic floor and improves bladder control with one press of a button.
“We call it the bra for the pelvic floor,” says Ullmann. “Women with pelvic floor dysfunctions are often not able to enjoy everything they used to so with YoniCore, we wanted to solve that and help them get their lives back.”
The device, which inserts into the vagina like a tampon, inflates to fit a woman’s unique body structure and provide optimal support. Used with the accompanying app, it also promises to help users do their pelvic floor exercises and strengthen their muscles.
Empowerment and education
While the immediate relief is important, Ullmann says their real mission goes much further than that.
“We want to come and say, Hey, it’s okay to talk about your pelvic floor, it’s okay to take care of it and put it on our priority list.
“We think this is an issue of education and a societal problem. As a business, we really want to be part of this societal shift and change how women perceive their body.
“We aim to build a community to empower women to educate themselves and learn about their body and create the biggest database on pelvic floor health,” she continues.
“We believe that there are many other conditions we could look at. With a big database, we can start treating other diseases and for us, that’s really empowering.”
Kira, her co-founder, acknowledges the challenges of bringing the product to market, but he’s optimistic.
“Not getting enough support is frustrating, but we are hoping to fulfil our mission regardless” he explains.
“We are already seeing changes in society. Women are a lot more comfortable using menstrual cups and tracking their cycle. My mother is in her 70s and she uses a smartwatch,” he laughs.
“Here in Berlin, there are many companies developing products to change the way our society deals with women’s health. So, we are really proud to be part of that.”
The entrepreneurs have big plans. After bagging the Deep Tech Award Berlin last month, the duo announced a collaboration with the health tech company Thaumatec to build an MVP for their application and get support with building the first version of the YoniCore app.
“We are also in fundraising,” adds Ullmann. “We are trying to go through this with more validation and we are also focusing on kicking off our marketing strategies to build this community that we think will be very important in our mission with YoniCore.
“In addition, we are focusing on going into R&D with our suppliers that will then produce the product.”
If approved as a medical device, the futuristic pelvic floor bra could be available as soon as 2025.
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