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Woman’s case raises hopes of functional HIV cure

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As the first woman in the world is believed to be cured of HIV, could this pave the way for a future cure against the virus? 

The news of the first female patient and the third person in the world believed to be cured of HIV was received with great enthusiasm.

The woman from the US was being treated for leukaemia when she received a stem cell transplant from a donor with natural resistance to the Aids-causing virus and she has now been free of HIV for 14 months.

The BBC health correspondent, James Gallagher, called it ” a genuinely remarkable story and a cause for celebration”. However, scientists believe that the cord blood transplant would be too risky for most people with HIV.

Only two other patients in the world were cured of HIV following a stem cell transplant. Both of them had cancer and curing their HIV was never the primary goal due to the side effects of the transplant.

Sharon Lewin, president-elect of the International Aids Society, admits that the procedure could not be a viable cure, but she explains that this new case “has consolidated our understanding of how a cure can be achieved”.

“There is a small group of people with HIV who get blood cancer and need a bone marrow transplant and this approach will be far more accessible to them,” she says. “However, the big question is, what does it mean for everyone else, for the 37 million people living with HIV?”

Experts are now looking at ways to make the cells resistant to HIV using less invasive procedures.

“The focus now is on how we can generate HIV resistant cells without a blood transplant,” adds professor Lewin.

Gene therapy is one strategy that is being investigated. This means that in the next 10 years we could see “gene scissors” being used to remove the receptor for HIV, mimicking what happened to the woman cured, but without the need of a cell transplant.

“Several reports of cures interventions in animal models seemed to have worked in the past,” professor Lewin says. “They’re using interventions in combination, flushing out the virus as well as boosting the immunity and we’re now in the era of testing some of them in people.

“I think over the next few years, we’ll know whether those combinations allow at least some people to safely stop antiretroviral therapy.”

A potential cure for HIV would have multiple benefits, not just financially, for those who can’t afford the huge costs of a lifelong antiretroviral treatment, but also socially.

“The stigma around HIV is a great barrier for people to seek out healthcare for both treatment and prevention,” explains Lewin.

“People living with HIV really do want a cure. They don’t want to be on lifelong treatment and I think that a cure will indeed make a difference. People would come to get tested and go on treatment, because they know there’s a cure rather than lifelong treatment.”

Another HIV cure would involve a therapeutic vaccine, as opposed to a standard vaccine, that would stimulate the immune system of someone already infected with HIV.

But even though we do not yet have a vaccine, there are many things we can do to prevent infection and minimise transmission. Condoms, tablets and injections of antiviral drugs, for example, have been very effective in preventing infection.

Professor Lewin says that: “Soon there’ll be implants and vaginal rings and a whole range of HIV prevention tools, especially for those at a higher risk of infection.

“But I think, more importantly, people need to know about how HIV is transmitted, the risks and how to prevent it,” she adds.

“We should be empowered to navigate sexual choice and prevent infection through behavioural modifications. For young women, I guess that’s probably the most important thing.”

Sorina Mihaila is the Femtech World editor, covering technology, research and innovation in women's health and wellbeing.

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Start-up raises US4.2m to address disparities in women’s mental health

LunaJoy Health seeks to address the complex needs of high-risk women

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LunaJoy Health co-founders Sipra Laddha, MD and Shama Rathi, MD

The US telehealth start-up LunaJoy Health has raised US$4.2m in funding to address disparities in women’s mental health.

LunaJoy aims to eliminate inequalities in mental health and “redesign” the way women access care.

The platform, which offers mental health therapy, counselling and medication management, is developing care models that cater to underserved populations, providing care that seeks to address the complex needs of high-risk women.

The funding round, supported by Combinator, FoundersX Fund, Goodwater Capital, Magic Fund, VentureSouq, Nurture Ventures and NorthSouth Ventures, is hoped to help the company expand its capabilities and close disparities in maternal health care.

“The support from our investors, coupled with the current focus on maternal health improvements through TMaH funding, sets the stage for the change we need to see so badly across the industry,” said Sipra Laddha, co-founder and CEO of LunaJoy Health.

Mental health is a lifetime pursuit, and we want to design a way to engage and support women with a variety of needs and varying degrees of risk.

“By using technology, we can measure and treat symptoms more effectively, delivering a better service model to meet rising demand and a shortage of therapists in the US.”

This financial and strategic support, Laddha said, will help LunaJoy roll out its “novel” integrated care programme, LunaCare, across select communities in need of maternal mental health.

The investment will also facilitate the integration of advanced technology solutions to enhance care coordination and patient monitoring.

Surbhi Sarna, partner at Y Combinator, said: “LunaJoy Health’s mission to bring a new standard to maternal health care for Medicaid mothers aligns perfectly with our goal of supporting scalable solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

“We are proud to back such a vital initiative that promises significant impact.”

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New survey to ‘amplify’ marginalised voices in healthcare decision-making

UK charities enter partnership to address gender gap and advocate for inclusive healthcare policies

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The gynaecological health charity Cysters and Endometriosis UK have announced a partnership to amplify women’s voice in healthcare decision-making.

Despite progress in healthcare data collection, there remains a gap in representing the experiences of marginalised groups, particularly for those impacted by conditions and diseases like endometriosis.

Decision-makers in Parliament and the NHS often rely on data and statistics to inform policy and resource allocation. However, these datasets may not accurately reflect the experiences of marginalised communities.

A recent report from Endometriosis UK that gathered data on the experiences of being diagnosed with endometriosis in the UK found that whilst the ethnicity of respondents who identified as ‘white’ was proportionate to the data collected in the Census 2021, the remaining data was not illustrative of the ethnic diversity of the UK, with 15 per cent of respondents choosing not to respond to the ethnicity question.

To address this gap and advocate for inclusive healthcare policies, Cysters and Endometriosis UK are launching a new survey initiative aimed at amplifying the voices of marginalised groups in healthcare decision-making.

“We know that the current statistics are not inclusive of all communities, particularly marginalised groups,” said Neelam Heera-Shergill, founder of Cysters.

“By encouraging those from marginalised communities to share their experiences through this survey, they will be helping us to advocate for the changes that are needed, backed by evidence from their communities.

“In addition to delving into the diagnosis journey for people of colour and the unique barriers they encounter. We aim for this research and findings to pave the way for additional funded research on all menstrual-related conditions affecting people of colour.”

The survey seeks to gather insights into the experiences of marginalised communities, particularly concerning conditions and diseases like endometriosis.

Participants are encouraged to share their experiences openly and honestly, knowing that their responses will contribute to shaping more inclusive healthcare policies.

Sarah Harris, a researcher at Cysters, said: “We urge everyone to participate in this survey and share it far and wide. Together, we can ensure that all voices are considered in the conversation surrounding healthcare policy and resource allocation.”

The survey is anonymous and takes approximately 15 minutes to complete. To participate, visit Delayed Diagnosis of Endometriosis Among People of Colour in the UK Survey.

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Menstrual care start-up launches period equity initiative across college campuses

The initiative is hoped to facilitate access to period care and educate students on the use of more sustainable products

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Cherie Hoeger, founder and CEO of Saalt

The US menstrual care start-up Saalt has launched a new initiative aimed at addressing period poverty and environmental sustainability.

The Period Equity Initiative aims to reduce 100 million tampons from the environment while combatting period poverty.

Institutions, including Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, the University of Utah and the University of Nebraska, are already participating in the programme.

One in five female college students in the US have had to decide between buying period products and paying for other basic essentials like food and other bills according to a nationwide survey.

The initiative, a direct response to the demand for more units for student populations, underscores the issue of period poverty, which affects students across America, challenging the misconception that it is solely an “overseas problem”.

Saalt aims to make period care accessible and affordable through the subsidisation of reusable period products, such as cups, discs, and period underwear, to participating universities and their campus affiliates.

The project is hoped to not only facilitate access to period care, but also educate students on the use of more sustainable products, which are designed to be reused rather than discarded.

“Every day we hear from customers about how life-changing Saalt cups are for them,” said Cherie Hoeger, founder and CEO of Saalt.

“Creating period equity and managing the environmental impact created by disposables are pressing matters that demand urgent attention and innovative solutions.

“Through our Period Equity Initiative, we’re taking a proactive approach to tackle these challenges by leveraging our expertise and aligning with universities across America to make a big impact closer to home.”

The Period Equity Initiative, Hoeger added, furthers Saalt’s commitment to making period care more affordable, accessible and sustainable.

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