Pressing global health concerns, from undetected cancer to untreated psoriasis, require innovation to find powerful, lasting solutions. Often that kind of innovation comes from small teams, start-up companies, and underfunded research groups. But for these teams to be successful, they need support.
The William Davidson Institute (WDI) and the Center for Global Health Equity (CGHE) at the University of Michigan came together recently to assist with filling in that piece of the equation.
“There is a lot of research happening at the University of Michigan that could lead to impactful products or services in low- and middle-income countries,” said Paul Clyde, WDI president and professor at the Ross School of Business. “Assisting and accelerating that work, through both funding and technical assistance, is very much in line with our mission.”
Over 70% of women around the world have not been screened for cervical cancer.
To support that growth, Fast Forward Medical Innovation, a department at the U-M Medical School, offered a professional development course with a focus on key business commercialization principles that began in January 2023. WDI and CGHE followed the course with the Global Health Commercialization Competition, inviting faculty innovators to share their work on technical solutions to healthcare problems in emerging markets. Responses to the request for proposals were due in April 2023, and four finalists were selected, each presenting their pitches to judges on May 22.
Ultimately, one team took home a $30,000 prize and a chance to work with MBA students at the Ross School of Business to refine their plans.
The Power of Competition
Each proposal was centered on a clearly defined, unmet need in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and an innovative solution to enhance the lives of people in these regions. These solutions had to be commercially viable, and teams were required to outline market timelines.
In line with similar pitch competitions, presenters had the chance to highlight the significance of their work—and their own enthusiasm for the solutions. “These pitch competitions give the proposers the opportunity to sell their idea. Sometimes when we're reading proposals, we’re missing some of the passion. We’re missing the background about what makes these approaches exciting and relevant,” said Joseph Kolars, Center director and senior associate dean and professor at the Medical School.
“It’s an easier way for us to understand the why,” he explained.
Improving the Detection System
The first team to present at the competition, Saratani, is working to improve outcomes for cancer patients in Africa, taking aim at the lack of effective diagnostics. “One of the most important tools in ensuring better cancer outcomes is ensuring early cancer detection,” said Geoffrey Siwo, research assistant professor of Internal Medicine. Siwo's team included Robert Karanja, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Villgro Africa, and Deogratias Mzurikwao, AI lead at Villgro Africa.
Saratani, named after the Swahili word for cancer, aims to diversify the biological data used to create the reference genome for molecular diagnostics, which is currently designed on Caucasian genetic data. This leaves massive gaps in the data, making it ripe for problematic diagnoses in Africa.
Biobanks in Africa hold the information to fill this gap, but the bridge between them and pharmaceutical companies is missing. That’s where Saratani plans to step in. It would function as a marketplace, avoiding the overhead of running a biobank and capitalizing on the potential widespread deals that could be built between small biobanks and large pharmaceutical organizations.
While Siwo acknowledged that these biomarkers are not yet widely used for detection in Africa, he encouraged support for their preemptive and proactive work. “If we wait until these biomarkers are widely used, it will be very difficult to change, and we know they are inaccurate,” he explained.
Eliminating False Positives for Allergies
Penicillin allergies riddle medical records across the US, but it could be that up to 90% of people with this notation have been mistakenly diagnosed. This particular allergy marker keeps patients from treatments that protect against site infections during surgeries and superbug infections during hospital stays. In LMICs, false penicillin allergies could make certain treatments totally inaccessible.
EpiSLS aims to make allergy testing simpler, from correcting those false positives to providing clear answers about food allergies. Parker Martin, MD and MBA graduate from U-M, and Cory Cooney, a U-M MBA student, created a novel optical sensing technology that is compact, portable, and safe for any patient who might get an in-office allergy test. For clinics in emerging markets, the tool—currently patent pending—could mean bringing sustainable allergy testing to regions where there has not ever been an allergy specialist.
Through their easy-to-administer and even-easier-to-read technology, the team is set on “bringing allergy testing into the 21st century across the world.”
Equalizing Results for Global Psoriasis Patients
Psoriasis is a chronic disease that causes psychological and physical suffering when left untreated—and in LMICs, this is often the case. While medications can treat many symptoms of the condition, they aren’t available in emerging economies. Costs are prohibitive, production is not available, and administration is a challenge. The Psoriasis RX team, led by Tom Kerppola, professor of Biological Chemistry and Biophysics, has set its sights on changing that dynamic.
“The problem is enormous,” Kerppola explained. About 100 million people suffer from psoriasis at the moment, and a substantial number are not finding any relief. “Regrettably, the only drugs used in low-income countries have very low efficacy, barely better than placebos,” he said, explaining that that’s not the case in high-income countries. “It’s clear we can do better.”
His research is centered on the Keap 1 protein, which could suppress inflammatory responses in skin fibroblasts without the risks of systemic infection that often come with immunosuppressant drugs. “This is not an untreatable condition,” Kerppola said, and he’s on his way to finding a treatment that works for patients regardless of geography.
Saving Lives with a Better Women’s Health Tool
Over 70% of women around the world have not been screened for cervical cancer, and part of the reason is access to and comfort with the current medical tools required for these screenings. At the moment, the exam for cervical cancer screening requires a vaginal speculum, an exam table with stirrups, and a person who is physically and emotionally able to handle the exam. For many around the globe, those requirements just cannot be met.
In search of a way to reach these women, Marilyn Filter, a certified nurse midwife and associate professor at U-M Flint, and Lyn Behnke, board certified family nurse practitioner, psychiatric nurse practitioner, and associate professor at the U-M Flint, built a new tool.
The Femscope Calm Collect system is a slim, cell-collection device with a scope that would replace the speculum and swab typically used. Providers can learn to use it in under an hour, it connects to a smartphone or computer, and patients can receive the exam without an exam table.
“We have made it our mission in life to improve patient outcomes,” explained Filter. Their accessible tool is less expensive, easier to use, and more comfortable for many patients—all traits prioritized to improve screening rates for people around the globe.
The team is on its way to completing its pilot study to ensure biopsy results are of the same caliber as a traditional exam, then the product will move to a full clinical trial and eventually head to market around the globe, Filter said.
Choosing a Winner
Judges Ioan Cleaton-Jones, senior director of Healthcare Delivery at WDI, Pascale Leroueil, vice president of Healthcare at WDI, Amy Conger, managing director for the Center, Brad Martin, managing director of Fast Forward Medical Information, and Lee Schroeder, associate professor of Chemical Pathology, along with Kolars and Clyde, faced the difficult task of choosing a winner.
They considered the presentations, asked questions of the teams, and came to a decision: the Femscope team took home the prize.
Filter and Behnke plan to use the funds to purchase a 3D printer and fund its pilot test—the first essential steps to get the life-changing product into the market. Once there, “it will certainly save lives,” said Filter.