The rise in femtech over the past few years has brought female health to the forefront of the market. From period tracking apps to fertility support, technology has opened up a whole new world for women looking to take control of their health. But how is the tech addressing women’s mental health concerns? Femtech World reports.
Over recent years, as a population we’ve all been increasingly aware with mental health, with books, courses and apps all being produced to support users’ emotional wellbeing.
In England, around one in five women has a common mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or self-harm.
And the pandemic is said to have disproportionately affected the mental health of women in particular. In fact, research from the US using real-time survey data, found that the gender gap in mental health in the US increased by 66 per cent over the course of the pandemic.
Now, femtech is being leveraged to help women take care of their mental health across a number of spheres – with a number of exciting developments and deals having been launched in recent years.
The magnitude of pregnancy and becoming a parent can often be the trigger for mental health issues in women.
And Covid-19 exacerbated the issue, with the risk for depression during pregnancy doubling during the pandemic, while breastfeeding issues were also magnified, with statistics revealing to a 41 per cent newborn readmittance rate for feeding problems in the US.
To combat the most common issues, in September 2021, women’s healthcare specialist Sonder Health and virtual reality firm BehaVR have teamed up to create NurtureVR, a VR-based digital therapeutic to help expectant mothers with stress, anxiety and fear.
When combined with Sonder Health’s existing services, the platform provides mothers-to-be and new parents with round-the-clock support.
It provides mums and their families with access to 22 weeks of educational material, mindfulness skills and immersive experiences, along with around-the-clock access to specialty-trained telehealth lactation consultants and registered dietitians.
In October 2020, femtech start-up Clementine raised £1m in equity funding from impact venture capital firm Fortunis.
The female-focused hypnotherapy app, aims to help women find their inner calm, become more confident, reduce anxiety and sleep better.
It offers a range of bite-sized sessions of what it calls cognitive hypnotherapy, a style of talking therapy that encourages a person to shift their mindset, using a combination of soothing music and spoken word to lull users into a sense of calm.
The app was developed by Kim Palmer, who named it after her habit of bringing a clementine into stressful meetings and using it as a subtle tool to quell anxiety, by peeling or holding it to help keep her focused. Many of the hypnotherapy sessions on the Clementine app work in the same way: five-minute recordings designed to easily fit into users’ days.
Women are statistically more likely to suffer from anxiety than men, although why this should be is unclear.
Worry Tree was developed by lifelong worrier Louise Stevenson, after her husband told her that her anxiety was having a negative impact on every aspect of family life.
The app is one of just 15 approved mental health tools in the NHS app library, and helps users notice and challenge their worries. It is available for anyone to use, but 75 per cent of users are women.
It uses CBT techniques to train people who suffer from excessive worry to notice when they are worrying and try to build more constructive habits of problem-solving and distraction.
As well as the physical and emotional changes that accompany pregnancy and motherhood, many new mums suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness.
The Peanut app was founded in 2017 when Michelle Kennedy had her first child and found there was little social support available.
Having worked in social networking for ten years, Michelle set out to reduce feelings of isolation and make sure no one has to navigate womanhood alone.
Peanut started life as a way of bringing new parents together socially and has since grown and developed to connect women at every life stage – from puberty and pregnancy through to motherhood and menopause – so that women of all generations can access support.
Breast cancer support
One woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 10 minutes in the UK. And while survival rates have improved massively over recent years – when diagnosed at its earliest stage, almost all people with breast cancer will survive their disease for five years or more – it can still be a worrying time.
Charity Breast Cancer Now’s Becca app provides specialist support to help sufferers live with, through and beyond their diagnosis, particularly when it comes to their mental health.
Easy-to-use flashcards give information, support and inspiration to anyone struggling to find their “new normal” following diagnosis.
It includes patient stories, information on side effects of different treatments, menopausal symptoms, fatigue, diet, exercise and body image.
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
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.
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
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.”
New treatment could ‘disrupt’ growth of breast cancer tumours
A new type of immunotherapy could lead to pioneering treatment for breast cancer
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.”
- Lawyers warn of discrimination risks around lack of menstrual health support in the workplace
- OB/GYN-founded vitamin company pledges US$10m to improve women’s health research
- New treatment could ‘disrupt’ growth of breast cancer tumours
- The slippery slope of presumed consent in post-humous reproductive health cases
- Women’s health content censored and blocked on social media
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