These Johns Hopkins students are slashing breast cancer biopsy costs

Over 2 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. And while the diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence for women in countries like the United States, in developing countries three times as many women die from the disease.

Breast cancer survival rates range from 80% or over in North America, Sweden and Japan to around 60% in middle-income countries and below 40% in low-income countries, according to data provided the World Health Organization.

And the WHO blames these low survival rates in less developed countries on the lack of early detection programs, which result in a higher proporation of women presenting with late-stage disease. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of adequate diagnostic technologies and treatment facilities, according to the WHO.

A group of Johns Hopkins University undergraduates believe they have found a solution. The four women, none of whom are over 21-years-old, have developed a new, low-cost, disposable core needle biopsy technology for physicians and nurses that could dramatically reduce cost and waste, thereby increasing the availability of screening technologies in emerging markets.

They’ve taken the technology they developed at Johns Hopkins University and created a new startup called Ithemba, which means “hope” in Swahili, to commercialize their device. While the company is still in its early days, the women recently won the undergraduate Lemelson-MIT Student Prize competition, and has received $60,000 in non-dilutive grant funding and a $10,000 prize associated with the Lemelson award.

Students at Johns Hopkins had been working through the problem of developing low-cost diagnostic tools for breast cancer for the past three years, spurred on by Dr. Susan Harvey, the head of Johns Hopkins Section of Breast Imaging.

While Dr. Harvey presented the problem, and several students tried to tackle it, Ithemba’s co-founders — the biomedical engineering undergrads Laura Hinson, Madeline Lee, Sophia Triantis, and Valerie Zawicki — were the first to bring a solution to market.

Ithemba co-founders Laura Hinson, Madeline Lee, Valerie Zawicki and Sophia Triantis

The 21-year-old Zawicki, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., has a personal connection to the work the team is doing. When she was just five years old her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the cost of treatment and toll it took on the family forced the family to separate. “My sister moved in with my grandparents,” Zawicki says, while her mother underwent treatment. “When I came to college I was looking for a way to make an impact in the healthcare space and was really inspired by the care my mom received.”

The same is true for Zawicki’s co-founder, Triantis.

“We have an opportunity to  solve problems that really need solving,” says Triantis, a 20-year-old undergraduate. “Breast cancer has affected so many people close to me… It is the most common cancer among women [and] the fact that women in low resource settings do not have the same standard of diagnostic care really inspired me to work on a solution.”

What the four women have made is a version of a core-needled biopsy that has a lower risk of contamination than the reusable devices that are currently on the market and is cheaper than the expensive disposable needles that are the only other option, the founders say.

We’ve designed a novel, disposable portion that attaches to the reusable device and the disposable portion has an ability to trap contaminants that would come back through the needle into the device,” says Triantis. “What we’ve created is a way to trap that and have that full portion be disposable and making the device as easy to clean as possible… with a bleach wipe.”

Ithemba’s low-cost reusable core-needle biopsy device

The company is currently in the process of doing benchtop tests on the device, and will look to file a 510K to be certified as a Class 2 medical device. Already a clinic in South Africa and a hospital in Peru are on board as early customers for the new biopsy tool.

At the heart of the new tool is a mechanism which prevents blood from being drawn back into a needle. The team argues it makes reusable needles much less susceptible to contamination and can replace the disposable needles that are too expensive for many emerging market clinics and hospitals.

Zawicki had been working on the problem for a while when Hinson, Lee, and Triantis joined up. “I joined the team when the problem was presented,” says Zawicki. “The project began with this problem that was pitched three years ago, but the four of us are really those that have brought this to life in terms of a device.”

Crucially for the team, Johns Hopkins was fully supportive of the women taking their intellectual property and owning it themselves. “We received written approval from the tech transfer office to file independently,” says Zawicki. “That is really unique.” 

Coupled with the Lemelson award, Ithemba sees a clear path to ownership of the intellectual property and is filing patents on its device.

Zawicki says that it could be anywhere from three to five years before the device makes it on to the market, but there’s the potential for partnerships with big companies in the biopsy space that could accelerate that time to market.

“Once we get that process solidified and finalize our design we will wrap up our benchtop testing so we can move toward clinical trials by next summer, in 2020,” Zawicki says.

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Microsoft invests in seven AI projects to help people with disabilities

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Today marks the eighth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and for the second year, Microsoft is awarding grants to AI projects meant to make the world more inclusive. The grants are part of a five-year initiative that will invest $25 million in AI-based accessibility tools. This year, seven recipients will receive access to the Azure AI platform (through Azure compute credits) and Microsoft engineering support.

Over the next year, the recipients will work on things like a nerve-sensing wearable wristband. That device detects micro-movements of the hands and arms and translates them into actions like a mouse click. Another project seeks to develop a wearable cap that reads a person’s EEG data and communicates it to the cloud to provide seizure warnings and alerts. Other tools will rely on speech recognition, AI-powered chatbots and apps for people with vision impairment.

This year’s grantees include the University of California, Berkeley; Massachusetts Eye and Ear, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School; Voiceitt in Israel; Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom; University of Sydney in Australia; Pison Technology of Boston; and Our Ability, of Glenmont, New York. “What stands out the most about this round of grantees is how so many of them are taking standard AI capabilities, like a chatbot or data collection, and truly revolutionizing the value of technology,” Microsoft’s Senior Accessibility Architect Mary Bellard said in a blog post.

Internally, Microsoft is doing its own work to make the world more accessible for people with disabilities. Earlier this month, we saw patent designs for an Xbox controller with Braille inputs. The company highlighted accessibility in its Super Bowl ad, and it’s committed to improving VR for people with vision problems.

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Biohacker Josiah Zayner accused of being an unlicensed practitioner

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Celebrity biohacker Josiah Zayner says he’s under investigation for practicing medicine without a license. The onetime NASA scientist, known on social media for his DIY medical procedures, was sent a letter by the California Department of Consumer Affairs after it received a “complaint of unlicensed practice of medicine” against Zayner. While anyone can file a complaint with California’s medical board, the fact it is now investigating means it considers the accusations credible.

Biohackers are individuals that perform medical experiments outside university labs and accredited companies. Zayner found fame online for a raft of stunts, including carrying out a fecal transplant and injecting his own arm with CRISPR. He’s also well known for his disdain for the US Food and Drug Administration, which he accuses of blocking innovation and putting lives at risk.

His company, The Odin, sells a variety of DIY biology tests, including a $209 kit that makes florescent yeast. But neither The Odin nor any other biohacker have yet to develop any notable genetic treatments. In a post on social media, Zayner wrote, “”I have never given anyone anything to inject or use, never sold any material meant to treat a disease and never claim to provide treatments or cures because I knew this day would come.” He added that he was being unfairly targeted for “showing people how to access publicly available knowledge.”

California’s medical board has requested an interview with Zayner on June 11th, informing him he is “welcome to bring an attorney” but that it’s not obligatory. It’s not clear what will happen next, but practicing medicine in California can be a misdemeanour or a felony, and carries penalties of up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

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Parents may be able to spot ear infections with a paper cone and an app

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Researchers are working on a smartphone app that could help diagnose ear infections. As NPR reports, the app uses the phone’s microphone, its speaker and a small paper cone. In its current form, the app sends short, sound pulses through a funnel and into the ear canal. It then measures the echo of that sound, and an algorithm uses the reading to predict if there’s fluid behind the eardrum, one of the common symptoms of infection.

The team of researchers — from the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute — released their initial findings in Science Translational Medicine today. In their study, about 50 children had their ears checked with the app, and the tool was correct about 85 percent of the time, which is comparable to technology used in clinical settings. But as NPR reports, the app is still in development, and it will need FDA approval before it hits the market.

The researchers hope this might help parents diagnose ear infections, but specialists point out that not all fluid behind the eardrum indicates an infection. Not long ago, the Apple Watch heart monitor, which can warn of irregular heart rhythms, faced similar concerns. Some initially feared that its results could be false positives, but a recent study by Stanford University suggests otherwise. Of course, health-based apps have become increasingly popular, and the FDA has approved products like a personal ECG device, an app-connected inhaler and a contraceptive app, all of which might help pave the way for this product.

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Twitter will direct vaccine-related searches to 'a credible' source

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Nearly every social media platform has introduced tools to stop the spread of misinformation around vaccines. The latest change comes from Twitter. Now, when users search for vaccine-related content, they’ll first see a link to vaccines.gov, which is run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Twitter announced the change in a blog post late last week.

“We’re committed to protecting the health of the public conversation on Twitter — ensuring individuals can find information from authoritative sources is a key part of that mission,” the company said. Twitter will also block auto-suggestions for queries that might lead to anti-vax commentary and information.

For now, the new search prompt can be found on iOS, Android and mobile.twitter.com in the US, Canada, the UK, Brazil and Korea. It’s also available on Twitter.com in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. Twitter takes similar action when people search for terms associated with suicide or self-harm, directing them to Lifeline. The company says it plans to expand the feature to other important public health issues in the coming months.

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