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Could femtech offer creative solutions for women seeking abortion care?

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Abortion care

With one in four women accessing abortion during their lifetimes, we examine if femtech’s interest in fertility could provide options for abortion aftercare

Femtech is taking on the fertility market by providing options for women who have been disappointed by the care already on offer. One of the ways in which it excels in considering all areas of fertility however controversial or difficult. This includes discussions on discharge health, miscarriages, depression and the difficult subject of abortion care.

The demand for abortion care is rising thanks to the pandemic and also, new laws such as the Texas restrictions passed last year.  A study by researchers at the University of Texas found that requests by people in the state to an international humanitarian organisation, Aid Access rose by almost 1,200 per cent the same week that Senate Bill 8 went into effect.

When it comes to offering care options, femtech is perfectly positioned to offer help to women considering their options. It can offer communication with healthcare professionals via telemedicine links and platforms with detailed care or education options. It may also offer ordering options for pills, therapies or pain medication through virtual reality stores or clinics. All of which allows women to make their own decisions, at home, with loved ones and feel supported.

So what are the ways in which femtech companies are approaching abortion care?

Women First Digital on Whatsapp

Women First Digital (WFD) is not just a predominately female-run platform for safe abortion information but also offers contraceptive, sexual and reproductive health advice. The platform recently released a WhatsApp bot extension for Ally, which was the world’s first-ever abortion virtual assistant. It connects women across the globe to accurate information on abortion care or services.

The biggest benefit of using WhatsApp chatbots in healthcare is the immediate reach. It can be used by consultants for everything from reminding patients to take their medication on time to providing health data. It also reaches patients in their own environment to empower them to take control of their own healthcare. It allows women to make informed decisions with information on demand, as needed and furthers communication with experts in the field on offer through the app.

Abortion care

WhatsApp also provides complete protection to the data and identity of all parties through two-factor authentication, end-to-end encryption, and business verification.

Tisha Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of WFD said:  “Women First Digital inhabits the intersection between technology and reproductive healthcare with eHealth platforms intended to minimise barriers, improve reach, and strengthen women’s decision-making power. That’s why we’re excited to announce the expansion of our HowToUse chatbot Ally to WhatsApp, a tool that will help more women access the information they need to create opportunities for better lives.

On WhatsApp, the Ally bot has the potential to reach women on a device and application they frequently use and give them quick, tailored, and easy-to-understand information with safety and discretion.”

The chatbot, Ally, has had over 35,000 conversations with roughly 30,000 unique users from around the world through both the home site and Facebook messenger since March 2020.

“In the past five years, WFD platforms have had more than 13 million site visits with users from over 180 countries helping to reduce the rate of unsafe abortions and broaden contraceptive awareness. Ultimately, we work every day towards a world in which all women have access to sexual and reproductive health services that are safe, reliable and individually tailored,” concludes Gopalakrishnan.

Hey Jane virtual Clinic

Hey Jane offers ‘modern abortion care, without the clinic’ according to their website which looks similar to wellness sites. They are currently only operating in certain parts of the US such as New York or Illinois with their pills by post platform. Women who are pregnant up to ten weeks can log in, chat with a licensed provider through text or video depending on a person’s preferences and request an unmarked box of pills delivered at home.

The care does not stop with just the pills but creates a community where women can chat. Often abortion is not discussed due to stigma or religious beliefs or pressure, so the community can be crucial to women going through it alone.

The platform was created by the co-founders, Gaby Izarra and chief executive officer, Kiki Freedman. The company raised $2.2m in a funding round and saw its customer growth increase by 300 per cent between Q1 and Q2 of 2020. The founders believe that currently, abortion care is too difficult to access in terms of logistics, financial constraints, and from a stigma and emotional perspective.

Abortion pills by post

Covid changed a lot about the way that we approach healthcare including telemedicine and appointments over the phone. One way in which it changes the abortion care industry in the UK is that it made pills available for the first time by post by the NHS. Abortion law was amended in 2020 to allow women the right to take the pills at home during the lockdown.

However, Maggie Throup, the public health minister, confirmed on Thursday that women seeking to terminate a pregnancy by taking the two pills involved at home would lose that right at the end of August. However, Wales has announced it will make the move permanent citing the reduction in numbers accessing NHS care. Doctors, midwives, pro-choice groups and abortion providers in the UK have voiced opposition to this move requesting that the pills by post scheme be kept.

If this is introduced in August, tech may have even more of a part to play in helping women to access their options.

Read more: Why are femtech companies embracing the wellness industry? 

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Lawyers warn of discrimination risks around lack of menstrual health support in the workplace

Employers should consider proactively supporting women in managing menstruation at work, lawyers have argued

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Employers should consider the potential discrimination risks around menstrual health in the workplace, lawyers have warned, as research shows that most women in the UK feel unsupported.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the majority of women in the UK do not feel a strong sense of support in their organisation in relation to their menstrual cycle.

Figures show women are more likely to feel supported by colleagues than by their employer or manager, with only one in 10 reporting that their organisation provides support for menstruation and menstrual health.

Annisa Khan, employment lawyer at Farrer & Co who has previously raised the alarm over the lack of practical measures to support women with their periods, told Femtech World that employers should be mindful of the legal risks related to managing menstruation.

“Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against employees based on sex, age, or disability,” she said.

“Employers should therefore consider the potential discrimination risks in relation to managing mensuration in the workplace and implement measures to reduce these risks.”

A lack of workplace period policies has been estimated to cost businesses over £6bn per year, as menstrual symptoms cause women to miss an average of 8.4 days per year due to lower productivity.

Khan said organisations should consider proactively supporting employees in managing menstruation at work by reviewing existing policies, including sickness absence and health and wellbeing policies, to ensure they effectively address menstrual-related concerns.

“Creating an open and supportive environment is crucial for employees to feel comfortable discussing periods at work,” she explained.

“This involves raising awareness among all staff, including senior-level managers and male colleagues, to foster an understanding of how colleagues may be affected by menstruation, the relevant policies and how to have open and empathetic conversations.

“Implementing practical measures is also essential to create a supportive environment. Practical steps can include having accessible bathroom facilities with sanitary bins, providing free period products to employees, offering additional breaks and providing a quiet space for rest.”

In line with CIPD’s findings, Khan said workplaces should also consider implementing more flexible working practices and giving women more breaks when needed.

“Employers should be open to employees adjusting their work pattern on the days they are experiencing menstruation symptoms by, for example, offering employees the opportunity to work from home.

“Additionally, they should consider the needs of employees with disabilities or those with medical conditions, and how they may be affected by managing mensuration at work.”

Heidi Watson, employment partner at Clyde & Co, said employers should ensure they avoid breaching discrimination laws when approaching issues like menstrual health.

“As awareness of menstrual issues such as endometriosis grows and as employees are more willing to discuss their symptoms at work, employers will need to consider whether employees are disabled under the legal definition and therefore entitled to protection from less favourable treatment and subject to the duty of the employer to make reasonable adjustments for them,” she told Femtech World.

“Employees may also be able to establish sex or age discrimination claims. We can expect more claims to come before the Employment Tribunal in the not too distant future, in a similar way as we have seen with cases involving menopause in recent years.

“Adopting a flexible approach to managing those with menstrual symptoms which are impacting their work, and creating an open and supportive culture around the issue, will help to reduce the risk of such claims being brought,” she added.

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OB/GYN-founded vitamin company pledges US$10m to improve women’s health research

Perelel aims to close the divide on women’s reproductive health research and improve access to nutritional support

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Alex Taylor and Victoria Thain Gioia, co-founders of Perelel

The US OB/GYN-founded vitamin company Perelel has pledged US$10m to Magee-Womens Research Institute and Good+ Foundation to fund women’s health research and address gaps in maternal healthcare.

The vitamin company said the US$10m would be distributed as both in-kind product donations and funding grants through 2027 focused on advancing women’s reproductive health.

Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest US research foundation focused exclusively on women’s health, reproductive biology and infant research and care.

Good+Foundation is a national nonprofit working to dismantle multi-generational poverty by pairing tangible goods with innovative services for under-resourced individuals.

“As the only female OB/GYN-founded women’s vitamin company, Perelel is committed to ensuring that all women have access to medically backed care,” said Victoria Thain Gioia, co-founder and co-CEO of Perelel.

“This is why we are devoted to furthering women’s research in partnership with Magee-Womens Research Institute and creating more equity in the way underserved communities receive critical prenatal micronutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible thanks to Good+Foundation.”

Research shows that medical studies have historically excluded female participants and data have been collected from males and generalised to females.

The exclusion of women of “childbearing potential” from clinical research studies has meant that women’s diseases are often missed, misdiagnosed or remain a total mystery.

Alex Taylor, co-founder and co-CEO and of Perelel, said: “We recognise how wildly complex women’s bodies are — bodies that have historically been oversimplified, objectified and shamefully under-researched in medicine.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as ’12 essential nutrients.’ In founding Perelel, we hope to shine a light on how dynamic our bodies are by supporting them with targeted solutions made by the doctors and experts who know best.

“Core to what we stand for is the need to keep fighting for our fundamental rights and help close the women’s health research gap and improve body literacy.”

Perelel’s pledge comes at a time of intensified focus on women’s health as efforts start to reach new levels, including the White House, after President Joe Biden announced the first-ever initiative on Women’s Health Research in 2023.

“It is critical that there is more in-depth medical research done to support women at every hormonal life stage,” said Michael Annichine, CEO at Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation.

“Perelel has committed to a cash donation to further advance research into women’s reproductive health and to ensure that this research is made more accessible to doctors everywhere.”

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New treatment could ‘disrupt’ growth of breast cancer tumours

A new type of immunotherapy could lead to pioneering treatment for breast cancer

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A breakthrough injection could “disrupt” the growth of breast cancer tumours, paving the way for a pioneering new treatment.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with one woman diagnosed every 10 minutes. Around 55,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and 11,500 die from the disease each year.

Researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research have found that a new type of immunotherapy that targets non-cancer cells could help prevent the growth and spread of breast cancer tumours.

The discovery, published in The Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, has found that an immunotherapy approach targeting a protein, called endosialin, disrupts the tumour’s blood supply and, as a result, can hinder its growth and spread.

Unlike most cancer treatments, this innovative treatment does not target cancer cells directly but attacks the cells that support the disease instead.

Researchers used a type of immunotherapy called CAR-T therapy, which involves removing a patient’s healthy immune cells and genetically modifying them to attack specific targets.

CAR-T therapies are already being used to treat some blood cancers, and scientists are trying to find ways to make them effective for other types of cancer, including breast cancer.

However, CAR-T cell therapy does not always work on tumours because their environment suppresses the immune response, and it can also be challenging to find specific features on the breast cancer cells to target.

To work around these challenges, the team directed the CAR-T cells to cells surrounding the tumour’s blood supply that make the endosialin protein, rather than actual cancer cells. In experiments in mice, scientists found that targeting endosialin successfully reduced the breast cancer’s growth and spread.

The team, based at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), also tested the treatment on lung cancer tumours in mice and saw similarly successful results, suggesting patients with other types of cancer could benefit from this new treatment too.

In addition, researchers found that the CAR-T therapy did not affect cells without endosialin, indicating this could work as a cancer-specific treatment with potentially fewer side effects for patients.

“This is the very first study that demonstrates the effectiveness of using endosialin-directed CAR-T cells to reduce breast cancer tumour growth and spread,” said Dr Frances Turrell, study co-leader and postdoctoral training fellow in the division of breast cancer research at the Institute of Cancer Research.

“Immunotherapy has had limited success in treating breast cancer but by targeting the cells that support the tumour and help it to survive, rather than the cancer cells directly, we’ve found a promising way to overcome the challenges posed by the tumour environment and develop a more effective and targeted treatment for breast cancer.

“We could not have done this project without funding to the Molecular Cell Biology group from Breast Cancer Now and we hope that further research will help translate these findings into targeted therapies for breast cancer patients.”

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said: “This exciting research could lead to much-needed targeted treatments for people with breast cancer, and with one person dying from breast cancer every 45 minutes in the UK, new treatments like these are urgently needed.

“Now we know that the treatment works in principle in mice, Breast Cancer Now researchers can continue to develop this immunotherapy to make it suitable for people, as well as to understand the full effect it could have and who it may benefit the most.”

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