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DNA test could improve access to cervical screening

A six-step test for two high-risk types of HPV delivered results in 45 minutes and required just two pieces of equipment

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A DNA test for HPV infections could broaden access to cervical cancer screening, scientists have found.

Bioengineers from Rice University, Texas have shown that a low-cost, point-of-care DNA test for HPV could make cervical cancer screening more accessible in low and middle-income countries, where 90 per cent of deaths from cervical cancer occur.

HPV is a common virus spread by skin-to-skin contact. It is estimated that around eight in 10 people get it during their lifetime.

There are more than 200 types of HPV – around 40 types affect the anus and genitals and 14 of these are linked to some cancers.

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer. It kills more than 300,000 women globally every year, disproportionately affecting women in low- and middle-income countries such as South Africa, India, China and Brazil.

‘A mobile diagnostic van’

Researchers at Rice University, led by Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum, spent more than two years developing a DNA testing platform to simplify the equipment needs and procedures for testing.

In a study, published in Science Translational Medicine, Richards-Kortum’s team and co-authors from the National Cancer Institute, the Mozambique Ministry of Health, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center showed the platform could produce clinically relevant results on samples collected at both US clinical sites and at clinical field sites in Mozambique.

They demonstrated their six-step test for two high-risk types of HPV delivered results in 45 minutes and required just two pieces of equipment. One is a small centrifugee and the other is a purpose-built, dual-chamber heater called NATflow which allowed the researchers to use disposable cartridges to avoid false positives arising from workspace contamination.

Kathryn Kundrod, study first author and cancer prevention fellow at the National Cancer Institute, said: “We know what we need to do to prevent cervical cancer. It’s really a matter of access at this point, and that’s one reason this study is exciting from a global health perspective.

“It demonstrates a testing process that could potentially be combined with point-of-care diagnostic and treatment technologies to allow women who’ve never had access to be screened and treated in a single visit in settings like a small clinic or a mobile diagnostic van.”

Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and the founding director of the Rice360 Institute for Global Health Technologies, said: “The vast majority of disease detected through screening is precancerous, before the point at which people have cancer.

“That’s why screening programmes are so effective. People who are routinely screened very rarely progress to cervical cancer. It’s people who have never been screened in their lives, or who get screened on really infrequent intervals, who are really at risk.

“That’s why it’s so critical to address the disparities that exist and think about new ways to deliver screening, diagnosis and treatment.”

Kundrod said that if both the NATflow platform and test cartridges were produced on a large scale, each dual-chamber heater would cost an estimated US$500 and each test less than US$5.

She added: “The platform is the other thing that makes this exciting, because it can easily be adapted for DNA tests for other diseases.

“Preventing contamination has been a huge problem for DNA-based point-of-care tests. This is one of the first platforms to address that, and so far it’s the only one to solve that in a way where all the pieces can be easily manufactured with injection molding, which is important from a cost perspective.”

However, Kundrod said the team’s HPV test won’t be ready for widespread use until researchers modify it to detect more cancer-causing types of HPV and conduct additional clinical tests, adding that studies have consistently shown that HPV screening is the most effective way to prevent cervical cancer while DNA testing is the most effective way to screen for HPV infections.

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Social media health trends are ‘putting women’s lives at risk’, warn experts

Experts have raised concerns over the rise of ‘concerning’ health trends on TikTok and Instagram

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Wellness trends are putting women’s lives at risk, experts have said, amid warnings that a growing number of young people are turning to social media for health advice.

Inaccurate health information and hacks like the “period cancelling craze”, which encourages women to consume a combination of jelly powder, lemon juice and ibuprofen to reduce menstrual flow, have taken social media by storm.

There has been an increase in content posted on TikTok and Instagram discussing the alleged dangers of birth control and more and more content creators are sharing their experiences with natural contraceptive methods.

While speaking publicly about certain concerns can help destigmatise taboo women’s health issues, experts have warned that some social media health trends can do more harm than good.

“Social media does not put the health information in the proper context because it is set up for quick and flashy messages,” Georgie Kovacs, women’s health expert and founder of Fempower Health, told Femtech World.

“The algorithm appears to push content that is sensationalised and there is no way to separate influencers from clinicians.

“Even clinicians vary in their views. The ones who seem to be loudest get the most views and followers, but are they the ones keeping up with data? Are they subconsciously riding the wave of their big personality driving followers and likes and shares?”

Karolina Löfqvist, co-founder and CEO of Hormona, said social media trends typically lack any scientific backing, putting women at serious risk of making “ill-informed” decisions about their bodies.

“While influencer content can serve as useful reminders to women that they are not alone and many accounts are committed to sharing only verified information, social media has blurred the lines between expert and non-expert voices, making it harder to separate the truth from the lies.

“Platforms need to take responsibility for their users’ wellbeing by monitoring and flagging misleading or harmful health content that’s veiled as advice, and enforce stricter user guidelines to curb this growing spread of misinformation.”

Research shows young people are more likely to turn to their social media feeds for health advice, which means they are also more likely to discredit accurate health information. Dr Nitu Bajekal, senior OB/GYN and author of Finding Me in Menopause, is particularly worried about this.

“As a senior OB/GYN with nearly 40 years of clinical experience, I am concerned about the misinformation around hormonal contraception and the benefits of natural methods for contraception,” she explained.

“All these myths and misinformation are putting women’s lives at risk, especially because of the increased risk of an unplanned pregnancy. We know pregnancy can be a risky business for many.

“It also denies women with conditions that cause heavy or painful periods, such as endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids and PCOS, the chance to improve quality of life by being able to regulate their cycles with the pill.

“It is all very well for women who are in stable relationships or situations where they can afford to do natural cycle methods or barrier methods with condoms. For the rest of the world, however, having access to effective and safe hormonal and non-hormonal contraceptives remains crucial.”

Hannah Westwood, PhD researcher in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, said much of the content we see on social media about contraception contains false information, suggesting that hormonal contraceptives are dangerous.

“The promotion of natural contraceptives has risen alongside a backlash against hormonal methods like the pill, patch and injection,” Westwood told Femtech World.

“This trend is worrying because it is encouraging social media users to switch away from their existing hormonal contraceptive method even if it is working for them, to natural methods which may be less effective.

“Natural methods must be carried out properly if they are to work effectively, since conditions such as endometriosis and lifestyle factors such as drinking alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of some of these methods.”

While combating this spread of health misinformation online is difficult, Westwood said it is important that anyone making medical decisions based on information from social media consults a medical professional before making changes.

“Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok need to have more specific guidelines relating to the sharing of health information and take responsibility for addressing the spread of misinformation,” she also noted.

Jamie Norwood, co-founder of sexual health platform Stix, added: “When women don’t have the right information, they could potentially do something harmful to their bodies.

“Now, more than ever, access to medically credible, accurate, and non-judgemental educational content is critical. Sexual education systems are failing us, so women are left to navigate the internet rabbit hole for answers to their most pressing health questions.

“While these trends might seem harmless, we know that young people deserve factual information and tools to navigate their own health.”

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Digital health start-up raises US$7m to advance equity in clinical trials

Acclinate seeks to mobilise diverse communities to enhance equity in clinical trials

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Tiffany Whitlow and Del Smith, co-founders of Acclinate

The US digital health start-up Acclinate has raised US$7m in Series A funding to improve equity in clinical trials.

Acclinate aims to drive diversity in clinical trials with a community engagement platform that promises to help make existing trials more inclusive and plan more diverse studies moving forward.

The Alabama-based company uses a combination of community engagement and predictive analytics to help pharmaceutical companies increase diversity in their trials and other healthcare organisations support inclusivity in their initiatives.

Led by Cencora Ventures, with participation from Labcorp and Latimer Ventures, the funding is hoped to enable Acclinate to scale its impact in the clinical trial diversity and health equity landscapes.

“This round of funding allows us to continue the work that moves clinical trial diversity forward,” Tiffany Whitlow, co-founder and chief development officer at Acclinate, told Femtech World.

“We know that under-resourced communities must be uniquely engaged. With more resources, our team can produce even more targeted efforts, including technology-based and grassroots tactics which will help us reach a demographic that is least engaged and simultaneously most needed in clinical research.

“Likewise, this funding also means we are edging closer towards bridging the gap between the healthcare industry and the communities that stand to reap a direct and generational benefit from more diverse research.”

Del Smith, co-founder and CEO of Acclinate, said: “This investment marks a significant milestone for Acclinate and underscores our commitment to revolutionising health equity and clinical trial diversity at a larger scale.

“With the backing of prominent healthcare organizations like Cencora and Labcorp, we are poised to accelerate tangible change in the healthcare industry and empower diverse communities to proactively manage their health.”

The funding, Smith said, will help “fuel” Acclinate’ s expansion and help improve its Enhanced Diversity in Clinical Trials (e-DICT) platform.

“As Acclinate continues to pioneer initiatives aimed at inclusivity and equity in healthcare, this infusion of capital propels our mission forward, bringing us one step closer to a future where healthcare is truly accessible to all,” he added.

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Australia launches first AI health assistant for women

Ovum promises to help women manage and improve their health and better understand their bodies

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Dr Ariella Heffernan-Marks, founder and CEO of Ovum

The Australian health management app Ovum has entered its pilot phase as it looks to “reshape” women’s health by closing the gender health gap.

Ovum seeks to develop Australia’s first-ever longitudinal AI women’s data set with the aim to address the gender health gap and transform how women experience healthcare.

The app, which promises to help users manage and improve their health and better understand their bodies, is set to become Australia’s first holistic AI health assistant for women.

More than three million Australian women use apps for reproductive health and fertility. However, Ovum claims to be the only one looking at women’s health holistically.

“Existing AI can perpetuate bias in healthcare outcomes for women,” said Dr Ariella Heffernan-Marks, founder and CEO of Ovum.

“Ensuring that our AI is women-centric and draws from a diverse dataset is essential to its effectiveness and the impact it will have on our users.”

The app, developed over four years, integrates and stores a wide range of medical records, including blood tests, imaging reports, and referrals.

It features functions that allow users to ask questions and track health issues, which are particularly useful for women with complex or chronic conditions, where diagnosis can take years.

“One in two women navigate a chronic health issue in Australia and by leveraging the power of AI, our bespoke personal health assistant works to understand and empower women with resources and confidence to manage their health over their lifetime,” Dr Heffernan-Marks explained.

“Women’s health has systemically been underfunded and under-represented, and with women being under or misdiagnosed, my vision is to create an accessible resource that is designed with women, for women.”

She said: “I have witnessed firsthand the discrimination and overlooking the healthcare system does when it comes to women’s gender, age, sexuality, disability, migration status and especially income as we face a cost of living crisis. This was a driving force behind the development of Ovum, to create a more even playing field.

“I am so delighted to reach this milestone in our journey at Ovum, and for women’s health in Australia.”

Associate professor Susan Evans, gynaecologist and co-founder of the Pelvic Pain Foundation of Australia, added: “Women with pelvic pain have a wide range of symptoms that vary over time and can be particularly confusing for those affected.

“Pelvic pain is an area that has been under-researched, under-managed and under-resourced. Women recognise this and a high proportion have a strong altruistic wish to improve care and contribute to improved knowledge in this area.

“For these reasons, the Pelvic Pain Foundation of Australia welcomes the innovation proposed by Dr Ariella Heffernan-Marks. Her proposed app combines benefits to the user with their desire to have their data used for the benefit of scientific knowledge and others affected by pain. This app represents something truly new in the app space.”

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