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The femtech pioneers making headlines this year

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This year seems to have been a pivotal moment for the femtech market, with some experts predicting it to be worth US$60bn by 2027.

What started off with period tracking apps has developed into a lucrative industry, tapping into what has traditionally been a somewhat neglected field of healthcare. While medical expenses attributed to women amount to approximately US$500 billion per year, only four per cent of healthcare R&D is targeted at women’s health issues.

Added to this a global pandemic, where we’ve all struggled to see a healthcare provider face-to-face, and it appears women are taking their healthcare into their own hands.

From fertility trackers to breastfeeding and menopause support, 2021 has been the year of femtech – with 2022 looking set to bring more of the same. Here are some of 2021’s femtech headline makers…

Health and reproductive care

Start-up Hertility Health raised £4.2m in seed funding earlier this year to help grow its hormone and reproductive health-related product range.

The funding will help the firm expand its current product offering of fertility and hormone testing, along with menopause, miscarriage, postnatal care, polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis testing.

It will also support the expansion of its current clinical trials, which aim to reduce the diagnosis time for some of the most common reproductive conditions.

Hertility Health helps women to understand their reproductive health and infertility risks, working with experts to provide personalised care pathways for all aspects of women’s health, including symptom management, egg freezing and IVF.

It was founded by female scientists while on maternity leave and launched during lockdown last year, as demand surged for remote and accessible help as a result of the pandemic.

Hashimoto’s disease

Hashimoto’s disease is a condition with nearly 500 million sufferers worldwide.

It affects the thyroid, which is responsible for hormones by regulating the processes in the cells of almost all systems in our body, such as immune, endocrine, digestive, nervous and reproductive.

Diagnosis can take up to eight years as there are thought to be 45 different symptoms, and women are five to eight times more likely to suffer than men.

One of these women is Eva Galant, founder and CEO of Hashiona, an app that helps sufferers to change their daily habits and put the disease into remission.

The app was launched last year and has already attracted more than 10,000 users, mainly women, suffering from Hashimoto’s disease and thyroid-related conditions.

Its interactive design contains videos, infographics, articles and tests, all designed to help achieve remission in 20 weeks.

Periods and exercise

In 2019, Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill launched Jennis, a fitness app to help women perform safe post-natal workouts.

In 2021, the app added a cycle-mapping function, which helps amateur exercise fans train, eat and sleep in patterns that work with their hormonal cycles.

Recommendations are varied across the four phases of a menstrual cycle, as this helps to create more efficient training programs, lean muscle gains and increased energy levels.

Jessica said: “By making it easier for women to understand their cycles, I want to help women all over the world feel better, train better and understand their bodies better. That’s a legacy I will be really proud of.”

Conception support

Femometer is a Chinese-based firm that has developed a number of smart devices for women’s health and wellbeing.

Its first product was a basal thermometer, which can act as a natural contraception method or help women who are trying to conceive, followed in 2019 by Femometer Ivy, which monitors luteinizing hormone (LH) levels, to help women determine when they are ovulating.

Earlier this year, the company launched Lilac, which it claimed was the first smart Kegel exerciser on the market to help women strengthen their pelvic floor muscles.

The silicon device has 360-degree pressure detection and connects via Bluetooth to the user’s smartphone, providing real-time biofeedback through the Femometer app.

Increasing representation

In April, Bristol-based innovation and product development agency, Kinneir Dufort (KD), launched an initiative called XXEquals, the UK’s first mostly female team designing products for women across the consumer, industrial and medical markets.

Around half of the world’s population is female and women buy 85 per cent of household products, yet data shows only five per cent of the product and design industry is female.

Inspired by the growing need to design more female-focused products in the femtech space, XXEquals is working on projects including smart femcare solutions which monitor and diagnose women’s health conditions, digital ecosystems delivering personalised health and wellness solutions for women and voice recognition software.

The agency has previously developed women-centred products including a breast scanning bed and a device to increase success during IVF.

 

 

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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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