Cathrine Heuch, founder of the Norwegian start-up Nordic Brain Tech, received EU funding from DIGI-B-CUBE to develop a prototype that will help migraine patients.

2,4 million euros for digital health innovations

Oslo Cancer Cluster has awarded EU funding of 2,4 million euro to companies that want to digitalise the medical sector.

What if the medical and technological sectors could join forces so that patients could receive more precise diagnosis and treatment? Imagine the products that could be created, the costs that could be saved and the lives that could be improved. This was the idea behind the EU-funded project DIGI-B-CUBE, which was coordinated by Oslo Cancer Cluster for the last three years.

“We need to create collaborations between people working in medicine and people working in tech, so they can develop innovative solutions to handle health data or analyse medical images. This can lead to faster, more precise diagnosis, and ultimately advance precision medicine in cancer,” said Ketil Widerberg, general manager of Oslo Cancer Cluster.

 

Better diagnostics with tech

Simply explained, DIGI is short for digitalisation and B-CUBE is short for bio-imaging, bio-sensing and bio-banking. All three Bs are important tools in medical research and diagnosis, especially in personalised medicine.

The goal of DIGI-B-CUBE was to raise the level of digitalisation in these B-industries. The project’s approach was to match companies in health with relevant tech companies and provide funding so innovations could be developed.

“We see the medical sector, one of the most innovative sectors, is lingering behind in digitalisation.”

“We see the medical sector, one of the most innovative sectors, is lingering behind in digitalisation. When applying artificial intelligence to analysis of x-ray images, you can do much better diagnostics, statistical evaluations, and forecasts about who is disposed to get, for example, breast cancer. This is not just about making the processes more effective, but about the impact, which is better health, longer lives and saving lives,” said Tamara Högler, DIGI-B-CUBE coordinator on behalf of Oslo Cancer Cluster.

 

Made idea into prototype

In total, DIGI-B-CUBE provided 2,4 million euros in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme to 32 projects from 75 companies across Europe.

Cathrine Ro Heuch, CEO of Nordic Brain Tech, was one of the recipients. Heuch has suffered from headaches her entire life but received limited help from the healthcare system. When she met a group of neuroscientists with a novel solution while working for NTNU technology transfer, she decided to do something about it.

“The doctors from St Olav’s Hospital had invented a digital treatment for migraines in children. Using biofeedback, you can train the nervous system to be more relaxed. The principal of biofeedback is very old and recommended in the national guidelines for migraine treatments, but it is not available in the public healthcare system in Norway,” said Heuch.

Heuch founded the company Nordic Brain Tech with the goal to transform the solution into a product that is cost-effective and easy-to-use for patients at home. However, it is not easy to find private capital, because investors see a high risk in early-stage projects. Heuch needed public funding to make her idea into a prototype.

Högler also knows how difficult it is for early-stage companies to access public funding on an international level.

“Funding applications for European projects is not something you complete in one or two hours. It is a long process. The chance of receiving funding is low and the administrative process is complicated. In comparison, the application for DIGI-B-CUBE was quite lean and the project duration was short,” Högler explained.

Nordic Brain Tech applied for DIGI-B-CUBE funding, together with their partner i3tex in Sweden and their partner Thorgate in Estonia, and they were granted 150 000 euros.

“It was important to have partners in other countries because these skill sets are not widely available in Norway.”

“It was important to have partners in other countries because these skill sets are not widely available in Norway. There are many great medtech development companies in Sweden, so we found a partner there that could create the device. Estonia has many great software developers, so it was natural to ask someone there to help us create the app,” Heuch explained.

Using funding from DIGI-B-CUBE, they created a prototype that monitors body temperature, heart rate, and muscle tension, while connected to an app on your phone.

“The point of the treatment is to train the body to have better blood flow, increase the body temperature and relax the muscles in the neck. The idea is to follow a 12-week programme, using the product 10 minutes every day, to increase the patient’s awareness of how these body functions are connected to migraines,” Heuch explained.

Nordic Brain Tech are now on the way to launch a clinical study in Trondheim. If successful, this product may help the one in seven Norwegians who suffer from migraines today.

6 people in front of a green wall looking into the camera smiling

The DIGI-B-CUBE consortium met at Oslo Cancer Cluster in November 2021. From the left: Nikolaos Matskanis (Infopole), Panagiotis Markovits (Motivian), Gerry Renders (EISMEA), Miltiadis Anastasiadis (Motivan), Gawel Walczak (Secpho), Astrid Green (OCC), Milena Stoyanova (EISMEA), Ketil Widerberg (OCC) and Bente Prestegård (OCC).

Clusters connected companies

DIGI-B-CUBE was implemented by a consortium of eight partners in different European countries and co-ordinated by Oslo Cancer Cluster. The point of involving clusters was to ease the identification of the needs of the companies in each region and to simplify matchmaking between them.

“Small companies need incentives in order to work together across countries and sectors.”

“Small companies need incentives in order to work together across countries and sectors. It is great the European Union gives out these funds and that Oslo Cancer Cluster can take a role in connecting companies across Europe,” said Widerberg.

Carina Schachinger, Project Manager at Business Upper Austria, stresses that the success of the project went beyond the funding.

“This was a great success because we were able to connect these companies with research and business partners across borders. Companies could extend their network on an international level, which is normally quite difficult,” said Schachinger.

Although the corona pandemic made it challenging for the consortium and companies to meet, the interest in medical diagnostics suddenly increased. The fact that DIGI-B-CUBE went virtual enabled more companies from different countries to participate in the digital sessions. Ultimately, 980 SMEs applied for in total 426 innovation projects.

“What makes DIGI-B-CUBE great is that if you support these companies in their innovation, then it has an immediate benefit in the companies, but it is also about medical diagnostics and health in general. It has this big benefit for society. When we look at the 32 projects that received funding, it is great to have this precise approach to medicine and this can improve the lives for you and me,” said Schachinger.

 

Stay connected to our website and social media channels to learn more about our initiatives and funding calls on a European level.

Exclusive interview with Jutta Heix

Our Head of International Affairs is featured in Nordic Life Science Magazine.

Read about how we are accelerating the development of new cancer treatments and diagnostics, while connecting and helping innovators, and putting Norwegian oncology on the global map. In an exclusive interview, Jutta Heix, Head of International Affairs in Oslo Cancer Cluster, talks about her efforts to advance an oncology innovation ecosystem.

In collaboration with Nordic Life Science Magazine, we are pleased to offer this issue to our readers for free.

Read here: https://www.e-magin.se/paper/sptrqx7k/paper/30

 

Professor Håvard Danielsen is the recipient of the King Olav Vs Cancer Research Award 2022. Photo: The Institute of Cancer Genetics and Informatics at Oslo University Hospital.

AI researcher gets cancer award

Håvard Danielsen

Professor Håvard Danielsen has received a cancer research award for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve cancer prognosis.

King Olav Vs Cancer Research Award of 2022 has been granted to Professor Håvard Danielsen at the Institute for Cancer Genetics and Informatics (ICGI) at Oslo University Hospital.

“This is a huge recognition and an inspiration. I am proud to join the 29 cancer researchers that have received the prize before me,” Danielsen commented.

The prestigious prize is awarded annually by the Norwegian Cancer Society, and it is the highest honour for Norwegian cancer researchers.

The description states: “Danielsen is a pioneer and a world-leading expert in digital pathology and the development of new methods for the application of artificial intelligence”.

Ground-breaking AI research

Simply explained, Danielsen and his research team at ICGI have trained computers to recognise cancer tumours, their characteristics and the patient’s prognosis, by feeding the computer with millions of images of samples from tumours of cancer patients.

“We have used machine learning to automate cancer diagnostics and prognosis. We have developed new methods to give a more objective diagnosis,” said Danielsen.

There are three reasons for this.

  1. Cancer diagnoses are made by pathologists, and the number of pathologists is declining while the number of cancer cases rise.
  2. It is difficult for pathologists to determine the disease progression of the patient. This leads to many patients getting too much treatment or too little treatment, which is both expensive for society and damaging to the individual.
  3. Tumours are very heterogeneous, more efficient methods to investigate more samples from each tumour are needed.

Artifical intelligence may drastically change the field of cancer pathology by offering new and objective methods that can easily be distributed as a supplement to the current practise.

Results from histotyping projected onto the histological slide being analysed.

This is a heatmap showing the result of the computer analysis in each part of the cancer sample. Photo: ICGI.

The research has mainly focused on colorectal cancer. However, the exact same technology and design can be applied to other cancer types too. The research group has already had positive results for prostate cancer and are now working on lung cancer.

“Instead of spending many years training a pathologist, you can simply copy the algorithm from one computer to another. A computer can work 24 hours a day, doesn’t make mistakes and doesn’t get tired. This is not a replacement of the pathologist, but a tool to help the pathologist,” said Danielsen.

From research to commercial product

The research is part of the DoMore project, a five-year project that was awarded NOK 60 million by the Norwegian Research Council as a trailblazer for connecting IT technologies in health.

“There were huge anticipations. We were expected to break new ground, act as an inspiration, and create new jobs for Norway. This was an opportunity you don’t get every day,” Danielsen said.

The partners in the DoMore project were Oslo Cancer Cluster, the Vestfold Hospital Trust, the University of Oxford, the University College London, DIPS, the Department of Informatics at Oslo University Hospital, and the Institute for Cancer Genetics and Informatics at Oslo University Hospital. Around 50 people have worked with DoMore so far.

“This is truly a team effort across Norwegian and international institutions, and with many people involved. I feel privileged to have led this project,” Danielsen commented.

After five years of intense research, DoMore published their results in the academic journal The Lancet two years ago. At the same time, the company DoMore Diagnostics was established, and they are now a member of Oslo Cancer Cluster.

The video below was produced by ICGI when the company was set up.

“Oslo Cancer Cluster, OCC, has played a central role in the project, from start to finish.” Danielsen said.

“Ketil Widerberg, general manager of OCC, has been one of the leaders of DoMore. His responsibility has been to ensure that we develop solutions that can be commercialised. He has participated in all discussions and nudged us in the right direction. The company DoMore Diagnostics is a direct result of OCC’s involvement in the project,” Danielsen continued.

Danielsen also believes having Oslo Cancer Cluster as a partner from the start helped convince the Norwegian Research Council to back the project, which made everything possible.

Danielsen and his research group are still working hard to invent new solutions for better, more accurate cancer prognosis, which the company DoMore Diagnostics aim to take to market.

Oslo University Hospital is one of the actors behind the precision medicine initiatives for cancer patients in Norway. From left to right: Sigbjørn Smeland, Gro Live Fagereng, Åslaug Helland, Kjetil Taskén and Hege Russnes. Photo: Oslo University Hospital

Norwegian cancer initiatives receive international attention

OUS team

Norway is pioneering precision medicine in cancer with three nation-wide initiatives.

Norway is breaking new ground for precision cancer medicine implementation with three national initiatives that are highlighted in the latest issue of the academic journal Nature Medicine. The article shows the broad stakeholder involvement in the initiatives with 116 contributors with 80 different affiliations.

Kjetil Taskén, Head and Director of Institute of Cancer Research at Oslo University Hospital (OUS). Photo: OUS

Kjetil Taskén, Head and Director of Institute of Cancer Research at Oslo University Hospital (OUS). Photo: OUS

“These initiatives represent a triple-win effect,” said Kjetil Taskén, Head and Director of Institute of Cancer Research at Oslo University Hospital and Professor at University of Oslo. “The patients gain access to modern treatments; the researchers can investigate the effect of different medicines on new indications; and the industry can expand the application of their drugs.”

The three initiatives

  • InPreD is a service for precision diagnostics organised as a national infrastructure within the specialist health service. 
  • IMPRESS-Norway is a nation-wide clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of anti-cancer drugs on new indications. 
  • CONNECT is a consortium of public and private stakeholders driving the implementation of precision cancer medicine in Norway. 

Precision diagnostics for patients

Recent developments in precision medicine offer new medical opportunities for cancer patients, which has ignited a debate in Norway about access to more modern treatments. Though equal access is ensured through Norway’s universal health coverage, the medical possibilities challenge public budgets and has led to delayed access for some patient groups.

“There is a growing, worrying split in the health service, where some patients feel compelled to buy diagnostics and treatments at private clinics, when the opportunity does not exist in the public sector,” said Ingrid Stenstadvold Ross, General Secretary of the Norwegian Cancer Society. “These initiatives are spearheading new solutions for seriously ill cancer patients, wherever they live in Norway, and demonstrate what is possible to accomplish with public-private collaboration.”

Norway is one of the first countries in Europe to have a reimbursement scheme, with additional financial support from the regional health authorities to hospitals, for the gene panel test via InPreD. The infrastructure is being set up at all university hospitals in Norway and patients from all Norwegian hospitals can be referred to InPreD. It is currently only available to patients with no other treatment options. The results from the test are discussed in a weekly molecular tumour board that refers patients to clinical follow-up, IMPRESS or other clinical trials.

Åslaug Helland

Åslaug Helland from Oslo University Hospital presented IMPRESS-Norway at Nordic Precision Medicine Forum 2022 in Stockholm. Photo: Åsmund Flobak

InPreD has screened more than 359 patients, of which 67 patients have been included into treatment cohorts in IMPRESS, as of April 2022. An additional 10-15 per cent of screened patients have been assigned to another clinical trial or drugs through compassionate use programmes. This means about 40 per cent of screened patients have received a new treatment option.

“This is about leaving no stone unturned, about finding drugs for patients who wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise. We want to serve the needs that the patients have in terms of modern treatments in the public healthcare system,” said Taskén.

Clinical trial offers new hope

There are currently 16 drugs available in IMPRESS and the goal is to include 23 drugs by the end of 2022. The first pharmaceutical company to join was Roche, providing eight drugs in January 2021. Novartis entered IMPRESS as second partner in 2021, now contributing four cancer medicines.  

“These initiatives offer patients who have exhausted available treatments, a chance for new treatment options and hope,” said Eli Bergli, Medical Head Oncology, Novartis Norway. “Novartis is proud to be part of the implementation of precision diagnostics, so patients can receive a tailor-made treatment for their disease. These innovative partnerships, where public sector, academia and private industry collaborate in finding the best solutions for the future of healthcare, are ground-breaking and offer patients early access to new innovative treatments.”

“InPreD, IMPRESS and CONNECT are core initiatives for the implementation of precision medicine in Norway, and Roche is a proud partner,” agreed Kristin Krogsrud, Healthcare System Partner, in Roche Norway. “In addition to the important goals of establishing genetic testing in clinical practice and generation of scientific data, we see the work around development and piloting novel reimbursement methods as key to be able to improve patient’s access to personalized treatment.”

The four Norwegian regional health authorities recently decided to reimburse drugs in Stage 3 cohorts in the IMPRESS trial. The pharmaceutical industry pays for the first 16 weeks and, if the patient achieves a response after 16 weeks in the trial, the treatments can be reimbursed permanently from the public healthcare system. This is the first mechanism for a pay-for-performance model in precision cancer medicine in Norway ever.

Jan Frich, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority.

Jan Frich, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority.

“We have had a great and close collaboration with the hospitals in the establishment of a national infrastructure in the Specialist Health Service for precision diagnostics in the cancer field (InPreD),” said Jan Frich, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority. “The high inclusion numbers in the IMPRESS-study after referral from InPreD confirm that we are on the way to succeeding in establishing the necessary ecosystem for advanced diagnostics and clinical studies in the Specialist Health Service. This is something we are very proud of.”

Connecting public with private

The third initiative is CONNECT, a public-private consortium consisting of 28 partners, with Oslo Cancer Cluster being the project coordinator. The common goal is to drive the implementation of precision cancer medicine in Norway.

“Oslo Cancer Cluster is a neutral facilitator and an intermediator between public and private. They have been with us since we started working on these national initiatives. Among other things, Oslo Cancer Cluster has been a great supporter in bringing in the pharmaceutical companies in IMPRESS,” said Taskén.

The Norwegian Health Directorate is one of the observers in CONNECT and a coordinator for the National Strategy for Precision Medicine. 

“We follow the work in CONNECT with great interest as it investigates new ways of implementing precision medicine,” said Grethe Foss, Project Leader for Precision Medicine at the Norwegian Health Directorate. 

Taskén stresses one reason for the success of these initiatives is that they are not about profiling individual institutions or people but about coming together with shared objectives. 

“There has been trust and we have been able to act together. The fact that these initiatives now receive international attention can hopefully lead to an expansion of our efforts, that more companies and institutions join, so that more cancer patients gain access to the cancer treatments of the future.”

 

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