The woman in tech wields the power of radiotherapy: no overdoses in cancer treatment

  • 2022-08-11

They do believe in a world without treatment errors. Radiation in this case comes for a good cause, especially in brachytherapy. For a startup from Lithuania, the Baltics, it is a new way to contribute to the fight against breast cancer. Scientists developed a smart system of applied radiation dose measurement to prevent cancer treatment errors. Dr Neringa Šeperienė, the head of a deep-tech startup “Brachydose” is getting attention in the medical community as modern medicine focuses on quality management. The founder shares her momentum of being a scientist and an active innovation community member at Kaunas Science and Technology Park.

Breaking the myth of radiation therapy

When the war in Ukraine broke out this February, Lithuania, sharing the border with Russia and Belarus, was one of the countries which welcomed war immigrants. Yet the country was literally on the edge of an uncertain future. “We do have a history here. And it is not only about the fear of occupation but also about the memories of the radiation catastrophe in Chornobyl in 1986. It has affected the country directly”, explains the scientist. For her, being an expert in medical physics, it was an urge to educate local communities and describe the possible scenarios for radioactive contamination and preparation measurements as it comes to daily safety. There are many myths and unrealistic presumptions in public discourse regarding the topic.

“We are in 2022 and there is a myth that radiation therapy makes a person radioactive. It is not true because people do not accumulate X-rays. A person would only become radioactive after eating, drinking or inhaling radioactive substances. Due to the activity of the Sun and other cosmic objects we are exposed to large streams of radioactive and non-radioactive particles and waves of different frequencies. But this does not seem dangerous to us, although we should at least pay attention to the UV index and the intensity of magnetic storms. UV is particularly relevant in summer”, says Dr Šeperienė, the founder of “Brachydose”.

Science is literally in her veins. Her passion for bringing the inventions for daily usage comes back much earlier than the startup. Actually, her grandmother was a teacher. With a recognizable drive to test the world of physics, pedagogical instincts made her and 4 friends from the university stick together engaging in post-curriculum activities. “Science must be accessible for everyone. That’s the main motto, and it means we must leave a trace and speak about all the novelties for society. We as a part of R&D communities, own it to the public, especially in these postmodern times, when no one is immune to the outbursts of personalized, fake facts”, notes Dr Šeperienė.

That is also the reason friends were co-organizers with Kaunas University of Technology of the national science festival “Erdvėlaivis Žemė”, connecting the biggest cities in Lithuania. Together with KTU prof. Diana Adlienė, Neringa was also involved in “Piknik Naukowy” in Poland, Europe's largest outdoor science popularization event. “Those were the moments that kept us going. When you can explain the beauty of physics and demonstrate it via experiments, it sparks an admiration in the eyes of an observer. I think, curiosity, that one true eureka is what makes us human and powerful’, she explains and defines that it is the reason why science can lead us to be more empathetic citizens.

Experimental approach and the right focus

Recently, the Pandemic was the main catalyst of medtech innovation. The need for home-ready devices to track patients' heath has motivated her team to start a side project, based on national programmes to fight the virus. PIOAS, her “side-project” as she calls it, helps to monitor lung health. The device resembles an intoximeter and analyzes the quality of exhaled air detecting serious breathing disabilities among patients who suffer from lung diseases. 

Yet, it is another story. These summer medical institutions peel off the overprotective barriers, and now are shifting their resources toward innovation development. For a deep-tech startup, which develops quality measurement software and hardware, it is a chance to step into the phase where clinical trials can be performed. 

“Institutions are open to testing new approaches, products and methods. They are eager to meet new personnel. And we are happy to spend the summer season in Vilnius, the capital, where in the National Cancer Institute we have started the clinical trials of “Brachydose” - our dosimeter and treatment quality control system”, explains the founder. 

The medical community has high hopes for this innovation. Even though cancer treatment is shifting towards a proactive approach and scientific achievements in genetic manipulations, reactive methods remain the dominant ones and require a lot of attention. It appears to be that radiation is one of the most effective ways to fight the specific types of cancer: head, breast, cervix or prostate. Precision and accurate treatment doses are the startup's key focus. In fact, the team has established a startup to make medical innovation available to the public.

“The main novelty is the dosimeter which precisely navigates the physician to do the treatment with the right parameters. Dosimeters are placed into one or a few standard implantable tubes near the tumour or at a specific place chosen by an oncologist before radiotherapy treatment. Then the tool measures the actual dose all along the radiation source path moving towards the tumour and surrounding tissue. It sends radiation dose data to the doctors' computers and treatment modelling systems”, pictures Dr Šeperienė.

The prices of these procedures vary, but in Lithuania, one treatment procedure costs about 80 euros, whereas in Germany patients pay double. Each session takes about 15 minutes, and 4-8 doses may be needed for one patent. The problem of accuracy occurs in manual miscalculations. Usually, as the physician operates in a calculator, it may lead to an overdose of the radiation. Thus healthy tissues are affected, sometimes resulting in painful wounds on the patient's body. Within the EU, the cost of treating inaccuracies is about 1 billion euros per year, in comparison, the US exceeds about 2 billion US dollars (1.96 billion euros) a year. The precise dosimeters are one response to that problem.

What does it take to be a deep-tech startup?

Scientists do know that when it comes to deep-tech and hardware development, it takes time and persistence. What was a new challenge for the team, the entrance to a vivid and dynamic startup stage? In fact, scientists have established the startup to commercialize and bring the tech novelty from university labs to hospitals. 

For a startup, loads of persistence to master the business pitch adds to a daily routine of product development. Venture capital in the field of deep-tech innovation is another aspect that scientists have to count in. Yet, at the current stage, the team engages in the national public R&D grant system and the EU “Horizon 2020” projects. The EU is making huge efforts to boost the volume of scientific unicorns and gallop with the booming Asian startup ecosystem. 

“This system of support initiatives is getting more and more adaptive to the researchers and young entrepreneurs' needs, which is a good sign. The paperwork gets easier and conditions under which the impact is made within a limited period. However, the most difficult aspect of pan-European projects remains the management of a large international consortium as it involves hospitals, small and large companies, non-profit organizations”, remarks Neringa.

Entrepreneurship programs become a part of the daily schedule in addition to scientific works toward product development. The team has also started the EIT Health RIS project, which contributes to accelerating the modernisation of healthcare systems in Europe. “There is always an entrepreneurship side to every invention. If you notice and spin it, your startup may become a venture worth taking on the global stage. In this case, acceleration programmes are a part of a startup's routine”, says Dr. Šeperienė.

4 years ago “Brachydose” entered the Kaunas city accelerator, which led the team to a practical understanding of doing business. “Here comes a paradox - business model becomes quite clear in our case but the hardest part during the pitches and public startup contests is the concept of radiotherapy and cancer treatment improvement. It is a tricky part to understand both hardware and software behind the errors’ elimination process”, adds the founder.

The startup recently was valued at 3 mln. euros and takes a new level while doing the clinical trials. “So far, the Phase I ICE accelerator and “Roche”, a pharmacy conglomerate’s programme, were our best matches. We engage in developing entrepreneurship skills as well. Recently it was “Scale-up Champions” programs, boosting the scaling capacity. It gave us valuable contacts in Scandinavia and Estonia. We have started a collaboration with one hospital in Tallinn, Estonia, thanks to these partnerships. This would broaden the scope of clinical trials and help to prove the clinical value for a doctor and a patient”, says the scientist.

The deep-tech sector has its own specifics, which is why we do not have thousands of them within the EU. “And usually if the programs attract 20-50 participants, only a few of them are the true achievers. Let’s say, only 10 out of 100 make a significant impact. That is the price of an R&D intensive innovation - these species are rare”, explains Dr Neringa Šeperienė. 

The world counts on quality. With a relentless devotion to science and entrepreneurial ambitions, innovation reaches wider segments of society. For medtech communities, it helps to keep pace and invent new approaches in these intense and uncertain times.