It still takes an average of five separate physician visits and ten years to diagnose endometriosis—a condition that impacts 200 million women.
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For Heather Bowerman, that’s too long for too many women. She is the founder of DotLab, a company that wants to test for biomarkers around endometriosis, which raised $10 million this week. She’s joined by another venture-backed startup, NextGen Jane, that also wants to tackle issues around the diagnosis of this condition.
Before we go into what these startups do, let me summarize what endometriosis is for those of us who need a quick education.
Endometriosis occurs when the tissues inside a woman’s uterus grow outside of it, leading to trapped tissue that turns into chronic pain, or for some, infertility. For a condition so widespread – it affects one in ten women – endometriosis is often left undiagnosed or ignored until the physical pain becomes too dreadful to ignore.
Current methods of testing for the condition include pelvic examinations, ultrasounds, MRIs, and in some cases, surgery. Laparoscopy, a highly invasive method, is also often employed.
One startup thinks it can change these invasive, lengthy processes through a tampon.
Oakland-based NextGen Jane attempts to detect a range of conditions, including endometriosis, through “smart tampons.”
The process begins when a user buys a homekit that includes a “smart tampon” which they wear for around two hours. The user then sends the tampon through a test tube to a lab for analysis. The sample, the company claims, can be used to test for endometriosis or sense early-markers for the condition.
To help with that, the company raised a $9 million Series A in April.
Dr. Lisa Benest, the co-lead medical advisor of Los Angeles-based Nannocare which created a cramp-reducing sanitary pad, said that diagnosis around the condition is difficult, and that surgery is the most invasive way of testing. She added that “there are no blood tests one can do to determine endometriosis.”
That counters NextGen’s bet. While NextGen Jane did not respond to Crunchbase News inquiries, TechCrunch reported that the company’s technology has not been proven, or approved by the FDA.
But what about determining risk for endometriosis? That’s what San Francisco-based DotLab, which raised $10 million earlier this week, is working toward. It is not a genetic test, said Bowerman, but instead can help physicians diagnose women to see if they have the specific condition.
The test works non-invasively through testing saliva and blood, and not yet available for physicians.
Bowerman told Crunchbase News that throughout her career she saw how “medical research and the deployment of technology severely lagged in women’s health and ultimately led to worse outcomes for women.” Endometriosis, in her opinion, seemed like the best point of entry to eliminate systematic bias.
It makes sense that venture capitalists are starting to pay attention, said Noémie Elhadad, an associate professor in biology informatics for Columbia University.
“They probably realize there’s money there,” she said.
Thoughts From A Scientist
Meanwhile, Elhadad, a scientist, is tackling the cloud of ambiguity around endometriosis through bootstrapping. For data, not money.
She has created a smart phone app, Phendo, for women to log their experiences with endometriosis, a data dump she hopes will help her better understand the different subsets of an already hard-to-diagnose condition.
She said that her work could be seen as complementary to these startups. She is also working with NextGen Jane to devise a more formal partnership.
“Without data, technologists don’t know where to go,” she said.
So far, 9,500 women have logged onto the app and provided information that can be used to better understand the types of endometriosis.
“With this (condition) in general, we don’t have the gold standard of information,” she said. This complicates the work of tech startups looking to digitally approach battling it, she added.
That said, the blood that NextGen Jane is analyzing comes more directly from the uterus, a sample of cells she thinks will have insightful measures.
As startups tackling issues impacting female health emerge, Elhad said she sees venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies cashing in. She’s both happy and cautious. It’s wonderful to see more interest, she said, but these issues have long been the focus of labs, and conversations between physicians, not venture capitalists.
We’ll see how adding new players to the mix impacts the awareness and action around female health.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the DotLab test was available for physicians. It is not yet available. The article has been updated to reflect this change.