There’s a revolution in women’s healthcare happening in Cork - femtech

Femtech is driving a revolution in women’s healthcare, writes AISLING MEATH, who talks to two leading figures in the field in Cork
There’s a revolution in women’s healthcare happening in Cork - femtech

Dr. Sally Cudmore, Director of Innovation UCC; Prof Dr Helen Whelton, Head of College of Medicine and Health UCC; Prof John Higgins HIH Lead PI and Clinical Director Ireland South Women and Infants Directorate; Dr Tanya Mulcahy, Director Health Innovation Hub Ireland; Caitriona Heffernan, Innovation Programme Lead at Cork University Maternity Hospital; Jane O’ Flynn, Health Innovation Hub Ireland, Dr. Michael Twomey, Health Innovation Hub Ireland. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney

WHEN it comes to certain aspects of women’s health, there was a prevailing attitude of, “It’s a natural process, just get on with it.”

This attitude is gradually fading into the realms of a darker past, and the future looks a lot brighter.

Positive and proactive solutions in areas of women’s health such as the menopause have only just started to be seriously addressed in recent times, and thankfully there have always been those working towards the improvement of women’s lives, such as two innovative women in Cork who are currently doing just that.

Dr Tanya Mulcahy, a biochemist, is the Director of Health Innovation Hub Ireland, along with Dr Sally Cudmore of UCC Innovation Ireland. They are together driving a very exciting revolution in the women’s health sphere called ‘femtech’.

‘femtech’ is a broad range of technology-enabled solutions and products that specifically address women’s health, and as such the Cork hub marries technology and research for the specific requirements of women’s’ healthcare.

Through the development of products and conducting research, their initiative is leading the way.

Take, for example, an app for tracking periods, or the simple solution of a cream to ease post partum symptoms.

“We are delighted to have many new technologies and products being developed at femtech,” said Tanya.

Dr. Tanya Mulcahy, a biochemist, is the Director of Health Innovation Hub Ireland. Picture: Clare Keogh
Dr. Tanya Mulcahy, a biochemist, is the Director of Health Innovation Hub Ireland. Picture: Clare Keogh

We have some great innovations such as ‘IdentifyHer’ who have developed an App to track symptoms of menopause, and ‘Frendo’, an app for Endometriosis management.

“We are also working with ‘Nua Surgical’, developing a device to support safer C sections, and ‘AvetaMedical’ developing a non-hormonal device to treat vaginal atrophy, and ‘Atlantic Therapeutics’, a device for Stress urinary Incontinence, which has already been successful in the US.”

While pregnancy, birth and menstrual health have all had a significant focus, there are still huge opportunities to develop technologies which will vastly improve other specific areas of women’s health.

‘femtech’ is bringing all the experts under one roof to conduct research and develop these technologies. Clinical experts, technical innovators, research experts, investors and patients will all work together to develop products, and anyone with an idea is welcome to come forward to this hub.

While overseeing the fantastic innovations being developed in Cork through femtech, Tanya also keeps in touch with similar developments coming down the line globally.

She tells me about great news coming from the USA, where a new solution to the ‘mammogram machine’ has recently been developed.

Even though no woman relishes the day of her Breast Check, despite any discomfort, it is vitally important to have regular screenings to detect any changes in the breast. The really exciting news is that what was nicknamd the ‘Panini press’ is soon to be a thing of the past.

A new breast screening technology has been developed by two female engineers for the Isono company and it has just been cleared by the FDA. Women worldwide will be looking forward to the roll-out of this new wearable 3D ultrasound device, which is just like a bra, and which will make imaging more accessible, and help improve cancer diagnosis.

“ This is an example of the kind of revolutionary health care product that we are also developing right here in Cork at femtech,” said Tanya.

“It’s really exciting to see what new developments are coming down the track, and it’s about time.”

Not only will these products enormously improve women’s healthcare in Ireland, but they will also boost the economy, and Tanya estimates that the products in development will generate a whopping €60 billion for the Irish economy by 2027.

UCC Innovation Director, Dr Sally Cudmore. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
UCC Innovation Director, Dr Sally Cudmore. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Dr Sally Cudmore of UCC innovation explains: “As the Director of ICC Innovation, I am very keen to see UCC research and technologies commercialised in a way that will make a positive impact on peoples lives.

“UCC Innovation supports femtech developments through access to research expertise, providing support on protecting intellectual property, licensing new technologies, developing new start-up companies and helping them to raise investment.

“UCC has excellent research groups working in the area of women’s health, such as the INFANT research centre that focusses on pregnancy, birth and infancy; breast and gynecological cancers, and the micro-biome.

“A majority of ‘femtech’ companies are founded and led by women. We would also like to encourage more female entrepreneurs and founders in the ecosystem.

“UCC Innovation provides a number of programmes for entrepreneurs to help them start a business.

“SPRINT is a part-time programme for researchers and clinical staff who have an idea that they want to develop, while continuing in their current role.

“We also run a full-time immersion programme called IGNITE for graduates, who have recently finished their course of study and want to create a new company.

“50% of the population is female, but many female-specific health conditions have been largely ignored, and development and investment in female focussed health tech has been low.

“The ‘femtech’ sector is developing solutions to improve healthcare for women in areas such as menstrual health, fertility, pregnancy, menopause, pelvic and sexual health, mental health, female specific cancers, and other more general health conditions that can affect women disproportionately, such as osteoporosis, or differently, like cardiovascular disease.”

During childbirth, many women are familiar with the fetal heart monitor worn during labour to track the baby’s heartbeat, and now a less cumbersome option is being developed, called pHetalSafe.

“This is a fetal sensor being developed to detect and prevent fetal hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen to the fetal brain during childbirth,” explains Sally.

Sarusha Pillay, commercial lead of pHetalSafe, and Dr Fergus McCarthy, a consultant in obstetrics and gynecology at Cork University Maternity Hospital and researcher in INFANT, along with researchers in Tyndall National Institute, are developing a new minimally-invasive fetal sensor that aims to provide continuous real-time assessment of lactate, pH, fetal heart rate and temperature during labour.

The device will also promote mobility of the mother during labour by giving them more freedom. New monitoring devices, such as pHetalSafe, will make childbirth safer for both baby and mother.

Another example of female health care is that there is now new research into the microbial community that lives on humans known as the ‘micro biome’, and how it can affect overall health.

Now Researchers in APC Micro-biome Ireland are exploring how the microbiome (microbial community that lives in an on humans) can affect health, with some programmes looking specifically at women's’ health.

Dr Siobhan O’Mahony, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience in UCC is exploring gender-specific pain threshold/sensation, and has shown this is significantly less in women than men. The amount of certain bacteria were linked with pain sensation thresholds and stress hormone levels in women only, and during a specific stage of the menstrual cycle.

CLISTEProbe, led by Dr.'s Eric Moore from Tyndall National Institute, and Justina Ugwah, is a new biopsy needle that provides real-time diagnostic data which can identify benign and cancerous breast tissue, so that clinicians can make a decision at the bedside about whether or not to remove tissue samples.

It has just received funding from Enterprise Ireland to develop the technology further, with the aim of spinning out a company in three years.

femtech products and services will help to improve diagnoses, provide better care delivery through virtual clinics, provide solutions to track and enable self-care, e.g. wearables to track fertility, and address areas such as mental health, menstrual health and menopause.” she said.

Simple solutions can often have the biggest impact” said Tanya.

On Thursday the 19th of January 2023 @ 6pm there is an event co-hosted by UCC's Innovation and Enterprise Ireland 'Going for Growth' and this event will introduce the potential of an entrepreneurial career to women that may not have considered it previously.

People can find out more about the femtech innovation hub by contacting the UCC Innovations office at uccinnovation@ucc.ie To join the 'femtech' network: hih.ie/engage/femtech

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