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When the heavy-weights of the life science industry congregated in Hamburg for this year’s BIO-Europe, partnering talks were not the only thing on the agenda. The conference also featured a number of interesting panel discussions and, amongst these, one entitled ’Evolving priorities in women’s health’ stood as particularly worth-while. Five participants with considerable experience discussed the status of women’s health, the importance of female role models such as Angelina Jolie and what it takes to attract investors. There was complete agreement that this is a field that both needs and deserves more attention and investment.

The panel discussion on women’s health at BIO-Europe was led by moderator Lucie Ellis, Executive Editor at In Vivo/Informa Pharma Intelligence and Senior Editor at Scrip and Pink Sheet, and in the panel were five individuals with in-depth knowledge of the field: Ksenija Pavletic Aranicki, CEO of PregLem, Patrick Jordan, CEO of Mycovia Pharmaceuticals, Mary Kerr, CEO and founder of KaNDy Therapeutics, Sabrina Martucci Johnson, CEO of Daré Bioscience and Karl Ziegelbauer, Senior Vice President, Open Innovations and Digital Therapeutics, Bayer.

Advancements have been made

Even though there is still a lot left to be done when it comes to pharmaceutical development for women’s health, it is important to recognise that the field has come a long way in the last few years.

In the past twenty years, the number of clinical studies and drug candidates within women’s health has increased considerably, especially when it comes to disorders like endometriosis and female infertility. According to moderator Lucie Ellis, there are 37 candidates for endometriosis and 28 for female infertility under development today. Another area that is receiving increasing attention is female sexual dysfunction, where 18 candidates are being developed. In terms of ongoing studies, it is once again endometriosis that tops the list.

Among the pharmaceutical companies, Bayer stands out as the company with the highest number of ongoing studies in women’s health, but it is important to note that this is an area where many of the players are small and middle-sized companies.

Despite the advancements, the panellists were in agreement that there is much left to do, and that women’s health faces a number of challenges.

Underfinanced and under researched

All participants pointed to the same factor as constituting the most significant issue within women’s health – a lack of investments. Investments in women’s health are very limited and often much smaller than in other similar conditions. Ziegelbauer used a comparison between rheumatoid arthritis and endometriosis to illustrate this point. These are two conditions that have a very similar negative impact on quality of life, but the gap in funding is, according to Ziegelbauer, huge. That women’s diseases are underfinanced and under researched should not come as a shock to anyone; e.g., this summer a group of researchers and clinicians published an article highlighting the need for more resources to the endometriosis field.

Women’s health – trivialised and minimised

Pavletic Aranicki also expressed concern over the payers’ willingness to pay for treatments of women’s diseases. Drugs for such diseases command a relatively low price, and many payers struggle to see enough value in these indications, despite them being serious and having far-reaching consequences for the women’s lives. According to Kerr, this largely depends on the fact that the issues described by women are not quite taken seriously but rather dismissed as common ailments and not seen part of a disease pattern. But the issues faced by the affected women, e.g. anxiety and insomnia, can make everyday life almost impossible to handle.

Skittish investors

Yet another area of discussion brought up by the panel was investors’ somewhat anxious attitude toward women’s health. To illustrate this, they pointed to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a treatment consisting in the replacement of female sex hormones like oestrogen that sharply decrease during menopause.

Despite HRT being one of the most significant developments in women’s health during the past twenty years, lately negative data associating the treatment with an increased risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular incidents appears to have frightened investors away from the field. Kerr and Martucci Johnson pointed out that both investors and the pharmaceutical industry needs to be better at interpreting the data instead of instinctively reacting by backing off such investments.

Greater courage required

Judging from the panel discussion, it would appear as if women’s health is trapped in somewhat of a vicious cycle. Venture capitalists are hesitant because they cannot see their exit as big pharma in general are not interested in the area. At the same time, Pavletic Aranicki argued that the impetus must come from the venture capitalists whose interest will attract big pharma. Ziegelbauer underlined that there is also a need for braver venture capitalists who can see the possibilities in women’s health and understand that the market space is limited.

Getting investors to understand the enormous market potential of treatments for women seems to be a considerable problem. When Kerr was looking for funding for her menopausal treatment, she was told that there was no market for the indication, a statement that appears somewhat delusional.

Awareness and knowledge need to be raised

What, then, is required for women’s health to be taken seriously and the investments in the area to increase? According to all panellists the keys are education and de-stigmatisation. Not least among the affected women themselves as they often find their conditions difficult to talk about and struggle to ask for help. Jordan pointed to the need for role models who dare to talk about their own experiences; as an example, he mentioned Angelina Jolie’s candid approach to her choice to remove both breasts to prevent breast cancer. Jolie’s openness has had a significant impact on the de-stigmatisation ofissues relating to women’s health and has cleared the path for many a conversation on this topic.

It is also particularly important for the companies to involve the affected women and to have direct communication with the intended patients. Here social media plays a crucial role and all five companies represented in the panel underlined the significance of using digital media to raise awareness, educate as well as market their products.

Finally, Pavletic Aranicki emphasised how vital it is to provide women with choices when it comes to their treatment. Women are fully capable of making decisions concerning healthcare, but the pharmaceutical companies and doctors must make the effort to explain the alternatives. Women are not all the same and one treatment does not fit all. Therefore, women’s health must be taken seriously and given the attention and investments needed to improve the lives of millions of women across the world.

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