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‘The capacity for harm is real’- experts raise concerns over use of AI in reproductive health

Without prioritising equity, AI algorithms may end up providing “flawed” evaluations, experts have warned

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Experts have raised concerns over the use of AI in sexual and reproductive health after the World Health Organisation stepped in to address the risks and opportunities of the rapidly advancing technology.

The World Health Organisation and the UN Special Programme on Human Reproduction unveiled a new technical brief that would explore the application of AI in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The brief, developed by researchers through consultation with specialists in the field, aims to assess trends and challenges ahead and mitigate potential harms and risks.

While experts have acknowledged that AI has the potential to improve sexual and reproductive health, they have warned that without prioritising equity, algorithms may end up providing “flawed” evaluations and neglecting certain groups of people.

“AI tools are only as good as their inputs,” Dr Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice, told Femtech World.

“Without deliberately building equity into the process, algorithms may rely on racially biased data to provide flawed evaluations and recommendations for healthcare providers.”

Assuming one type of body to be the default in medicine, she said, has already had serious consequences historically, particularly for people of colour and those from ethnic minorities.

“AI tools aren’t perfect yet. When we use this technology to address our sexual and reproductive health needs, we’re putting our trust in tools that lack the precision, nuanced understanding, and reliability that good care requires.

“We’re also putting our medical information at risk, which then can be used to perpetuate medical racism. That’s why we need policy regulations for AI that address biases, risks and potential disinformation.”

Robert Ranisch, researcher in medical ethics and digitalisation at the University of Potsdam, Germany, said: “It’s crucial to recognise that AI-driven tools are vehicles for information delivery, inherently embedded with certain values – they are not inherently neutral.

“Think about digital tools for sexual education, for example, in a society with strong patriarchal views. It makes you wonder who’s behind these systems and what kind of ideology they’re pushing. It is crucial to have reliable and trustworthy institutions in place.”

Inherent challenges of some AI systems, such as biases, Ranisch added, underscore the fact that a flawless system is an illusion.

“Systems effective in one context or for one population may not perform as well in others,” he explained.

“This highlights the importance of contextual and cultural sensitivity in AI deployment. Engaging local communities in the design, development, and testing of these applications is crucial for their acceptability, trustworthiness and effectiveness.”

Dawn Laguens, vice president and chief of global strategy and innovation at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the possibilities of AI in sexual and reproductive healthcare and information are promising, but the capacity for harm is real.

“As innovators, our charge is to responsibly apply tools like AI to health care in ways that positively transform patients’ lives, without compounding existing harms or disparities to the detriment of communities that already face the most barriers to care,” Laguens said.

Multiple studies have found that AI models built to predict conditions, such as liver disease, are more likely to miss disease in women than in men.

Additionally, machine learning algorithms designed to diagnose common infections in women have been shown to present diagnostic biases among ethnic groups.

Dr Kala Wilson, content and community manager at Health in Her HUE, said to effectively address the “systemic” biases in AI, we need to see the technology as a tool rather than a solution.

“This approach can help make health resources accessible to everyone, ensuring fair and equitable progress in healthcare delivery,” she told Femtech World.

Dr Saralyn Mark, women’s health innovation lead at the American Medical Women’s Association, added: “As recommended by UNESCO, it is essential for civil society to develop gender-inclusive AI principles and guidelines to overcome the built-in gender biases found in AI devices, data sets and algorithms.

“This will not only provide a remedy for our existing technologies, but also for the new ones that are being pioneered now and in the future.”

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Labcorp launches screening test to identify preeclampsia risk sooner

The new screening tool is capable of assessing the risk of preeclampsia sooner, the test maker says

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Labcorp has launched a screening test that can assess the risk of preeclampsia before 34 weeks of pregnancy.

Preeclampsia is a high blood pressure disorder that can develop during pregnancy or postpartum and is a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide.

Roughly one in 25 pregnancies in the US is affected by preeclampsia, which poses an even greater risk for non-Hispanic black women, who experience the condition at a 60 per cent higher rate compared to white women.

In January, Labcorp announced the launch and availability of an FDA-cleared blood test for risk assessment and clinical management of severe preeclampsia during the second and third trimesters.

The first trimester test uses four early pregnancy biomarkers to provide a risk assessment with up to 90 per cent sensitivity, nearly twice the sensitivity of assessing typical maternal history or biophysical factors alone.

According to Labcorp, the test results provide risk identification earlier than traditional symptoms, such as hypertension or protein in the urine, which tend to develop around 20 weeks gestation.

Eleni Tsigas, chief executive officer of the Preeclampsia Foundation, said: “Our organisation celebrates this innovative new test offering.

“Research shows that patients and providers want access to more tools that better predict progression to preeclampsia, especially for those patients with low- to average-risk or those with first-time pregnancies for whom there is some uncertainty.”

Dr Brian Caveney, chief medical and scientific officer at Labcorp, added: “Labcorp is committed to advancing maternal and foetal health through innovative diagnostic and screening solutions.

“This new first trimester blood test is another significant milestone in our mission to improve health and improve lives. By giving healthcare providers another tool to assess preeclampsia risk in their pregnant patients with objective biomarkers, we’re helping to advance prenatal care and improve outcomes for mothers and their babies.”

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People with HIV can be sperm and egg donors

A change in law will allow people with non-transmissible HIV in the UK to donate gametes to partners

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Same-sex couples with non-transmissible HIV will now be able to donate eggs or sperm and become parents.

People with HIV will able to donate their sperm or eggs to their partners, as the law in the UK is updated.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act will be amended via a statutory instrument to allow people with non-transmissible HIV – with a viral load low enough not to pass on – to donate eggs or sperm, known as gametes, as part of fertility treatment to their partners.

Under current rules on IVF, only a male partner with HIV can give their sperm to their female partner and not to anyone else.

The law change will also eliminate extra screening costs for female same-sex couples undertaking reciprocal IVF treatment.

The government says this is part of wider work to improve access to IVF for everyone and ensure same-sex couples have the same rights as a man and woman when trying to conceive.

“These changes will allow more people to fulfil their dream of becoming parents,” said UK health minister, Maria Caulfield.

“We have changed the law to ensure equality for people living with HIV when accessing IVF, allowing them to donate their eggs and sperm.

“In addition, the change will allow female same-sex couples to access IVF with no extra screening costs, the same as heterosexual couples.”

She added: “These changes will help create a fairer system by removing barriers to accessing fertility care as we have set out in the Women’s Health Strategy.”

The changes to the law will allow people with HIV to donate their gametes to family, friends and known recipients.

The regulations include an updated definition of partner donation to enable female same-sex couples wishing to donate eggs to each other to undergo the same testing requirements as heterosexual couples.

Under current rules, female same-sex couples hoping to conceive via reciprocal IVF must first go through screening for syphilis and genetic screening, such as cystic fibrosis, which can cost over £1,000, while heterosexual couples do not need to undergo this screening.

Julia Chain, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said: “The HFEA welcomes the news that legislation regarding partner donation in relation to reciprocal IVF, and gamete donation from those who have HIV with an undetectable viral load, has now been proposed in Parliament.

“Fertility treatment is helping more people than ever to create their family, and everyone undergoing fertility treatment should be treated fairly.

“For known donation from individuals with undetectable HIV, we anticipate that the first clinics may be able to begin to offer this treatment around 3 months following a change in the law.

“We encourage any patients or donors who may be affected by these changes to visit the HFEA website to find out free and impartial information, including about how to choose a fertility clinic.”

Minister for equalities, Stuart Andrew MP, added: “Treatment for HIV has improved significantly, saving countless lives, but the stigma surrounding it persists – a stigma which often prevents people from getting tested and seeking treatment.

“These changes will help to reduce that stigma, making it clear that people with HIV can live full and happy lives. I am delighted by these changes which will enable more people to experience the joy of becoming parents.”

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Portfolia invests total of US$65m into women’s health companies

The platform has invested in 47 femtech start-ups to date

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Trish Costello, founder and CEO of Portfolia

The US venture investing platform Portfolia has announced it has invested a total of US$65m into women’s health companies and solutions.

Portfolia aims to create, educate and support the largest community of women investors in the world.

The company says it was amongst the first to recognise the “immense” potential of women’s wealth, with women’s health at the forefront.

To date, Portfolia has made investments in 112 companies with 47 of those women’s health companies being femtech and active aging specific.

Some of these include Madison Reed, Maven, Everly Health, Bone Health, Veana, Your Choice, Future Family, Willow, Hey Jane, Lighthouse Pharma, L-Nutra and JoyLux.

The total companies Portfolia has invested in are estimated to serve over 102 million customers in 115 countries worldwide.

These companies have a combined value of over US$17bn, with over US$1bn in revenue and 10,000 employees worldwide.

According to Portfolia, almost 70 per cent of these businesses are led by female CEOs, and 49 per cent are led by BIPOC individuals.

“At Portfolia, we believe in the power of activating our wealth for returns and impact,” said Trish Costello, founder and CEO of Portfolia.

“Today, women in the United States have unprecedented access to wealth – with over US$25tn of wealth in the US and almost 50 per cent of it owned by women.

“This wealth is power – power to create financial change and invest in the companies and businesses that matter to us and meet our needs/desires.”

She added: “Our commitment goes beyond traditional venture capital – we’re pioneering change, saving lives, and creating opportunities for all, while creating the most powerful community of women investors globally, and the first to activate our wealth to shape the future of healthcare.”

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