A new vaccine in the rounds to fight Gonorrhea

  • Around 400,000 Americans were diagnosed with gonorrhea in 2015.
  • Infection rates are rising, and public health experts think it's only a matter of time until a strain emerges that is completely resistant to all known antibiotics.
  • Researchers found that people vaccinated with the MeNZB were 31% less likely to get gonorrhea than those who weren't.
  • Given the current trend in gonorrhea infections and resistance, a vaccine like this could come just in time.

 

In a twist of fate, there is new hope for developing a vaccine to protect people from the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea, a disease eluding the medical community that has now become a sex superbug.

The vaccine, called MeNZB, was developed to control a meningitis epidemic in New Zealand from 2004 to 2006 and is no longer available. Researchers found that people vaccinated with the MeNZB were 31 percent less likely to get gonorrhea than those who weren't.

In the study, 1 million people who had been diagnosed with gonorrhea or chlamydia received the vaccine in a mass immunization program. Nearly 15,000 people were included in the analysis.

It's not clear yet how long the immune response from this vaccine might last, but this is an important breakthrough. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 78 million new cases of this STD worldwide each year. Around 400,000 Americans were diagnosed with gonorrhea in 2015.

Rise of a superbug

Over the past few decades, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea, has grown resistant to nearly every type of antibiotic used to treat it. That's bad news, because if gonorrhea is not treated, it can cause pain and fertility problems in both men and women; in pregnant women it can cause complications for mother and child alike. Now infection rates are rising, and public health experts think it's only a matter of time until a strain emerges that is completely resistant to all known antibiotics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists N. gonorrhoeaeamong the three bacteria that are urgent drug-resistant threats to the United States, deserving of the highest concern.

Preventing infection in the first place seems to be the best option, "and the most proven, reliable and cost-effective method of prevention would be the implementation of an effective vaccine," according to a 2016 study. Though the bacteria's biology makes it a particularly difficult adversary, scientists are optimistic about their prospects. Several hope to get a gonorrhea vaccine into clinical trials within the next decade.

Conceptual visualization of the gonorrhea bacterium that causes the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea.

The challenges in creating such a vaccine are great. That's because N. gonorrhoeae quickly swaps genetic code with other bacteria with which it comes into contact, populating its surface with different proteins and effectively masking it to the host's immune system. All bacteria do this to some extent — that's how they're able to develop resistance — but N. gonorrhoeae does it much faster than others. That means gonorrhea is a disease you can get more than once.

Traditional approaches of vaccines, which work on the principle that dosing a patient with dead versions of the pathogen to train the immune system to recognize it in the future don't suffice. And because N. gonorrhoeae has evolved to only live in humans, it's challenging to test on animal models (there is a strain of genetically modified mice on which researchers currently experiment).

Scientists get creative

Armed with a few more decades of basic knowledge about how N. gonorrhoeae interacts with the body, plus more detailed DNA sequencing, researchers are applying creative new tactics to developing a vaccine. "What we found in our studies is that N. gonorrhoeae has the capacity to suppress the development of an immune response against it. This gives us an entirely new way of looking at the infection," says Michael Russell, a professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, and oral biology at the Witebsky Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the University of Buffalo.

For the past several years, Russell and his collaborators have beendeveloping a new kind of vaccine, based on a cancer treatment. It's designed to boost the immune response at the same time as the body is faced with inactive cells of N. gonorrhoeae, countering the bacteria's typical immunosuppressive mechanisms.

So far, mice have retained immunity for up to six months with this technique. Russell speculates that his lab could have a vaccine in clinical trials in the next five to 10 years, but there are some important questions to answer first. They want to better understand the mechanisms that make their vaccine successful, and make sure the immune response the technique elicits doesn't itself cause damage.

Scott Gray-Owen, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto, has come up with another possible target for a vaccine. He and his collaborators have found a unique protein on the surface of N. gonorrhoeae that the bacteria uses to retrieve iron from its host. It's one of the few things that stay constant on the surface of N. gonorrhoeae, which makes it a good target for a vaccine, Owen says.

His team is now working on isolating the protein from a few different strains of N. gonorrhoeae and creating a proper adjuvant, the chemical in a vaccine that indicates to the immune system that something is hazardous. Because of how the vaccine works, they've been able to test it on pigs and cows, addressing other bacterial infections that bind to their cells the same way. "Economically, it's important for the health of these animals, but it's also exciting because it's a proof of concept," he says. He hopes to start clinical trials within a decade.

There are similar and related research efforts under way. Peter Rice and Sanjay Ram, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, are testing a vaccine candidate of their own. Other researchers are working to better understand the bacteria's biology — Kate Sieb, a microbiologist at the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University in Australia, is analyzing N. gonorrhoeae's genetic code to identify possible new targets for future vaccines.

"Given the high cost of clinical trial, it is likely that public–private partnerships will be required to drive development of a gonococcal vaccine."-Kate Seib, microbiologist, Institute for Glycomics, Griffith University

Russell believes the work in his lab is the most mature and stands a good chance of being the first to the clinic. But to Gray-Owen, in practice the techniques would be complementary, perhaps providing immunity to different groups of people within the larger population.

Once a vaccine becomes available, there might be hurdles in getting people to use it. One element might be the delivery method — Russell's treatment is administered vaginally in the mouse models, and he thinks that probably wouldn't be acceptable in humans, "in part because it's not applicable in 50 percent of the population to start with," he says. There might be ethical issues to address, like if everyone should get it or only those at the highest risk, or if it's acceptable to put out a vaccine that only works on men or women but not both.

Parents also might be wary of vaccinating kids against a sexually transmitted infection, as was the case with the HPV vaccine, Gray-Owen says. "It might be difficult to convince parents that their young child should get a vaccine for gonorrhea. But as [the children] get older and start to realize the concern, if gonorrhea becomes untreatable or if the prevalence goes up in North America, I think that makes it not a crazy idea anymore," he says.

Researchers in this field are overwhelmingly optimistic. Whereas their work might have seemed Sisyphean or irrelevant in the past, a successful vaccine seems closer at hand than ever.
"There are a lot of potential vaccine targets that have been identified, and we really need to get data from human trials as soon as possible. Given the high cost of clinical trial, it is likely that public–private partnerships will be required to drive development of a gonococcal vaccine," says Seib of Griffith University.

"I think it's going to be possible. I can't tell you exactly when it will be, but I think the findings that have emerged from our lab and elsewhere in recent years have made it likely to be feasible. There's been a lot of pessimism around for many years, but I think the tide is beginning to turn," Russell says.

Given the current trend in gonorrhea infections and resistance, a vaccine like this could come just in time.

— By Alexandra Ossola, special to CNBC.com

Original Article: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/25/a-new-vaccine-to-fight-americas-hidden-health-crisis-gonorrhea.html

'Virtual Cure' for HIV delivered to South African Child

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A nine-year-old infected with HIV at birth has spent most of their life without needing any treatment, say doctors in South Africa.

The child, whose identity is being protected, was given a burst of treatment shortly after birth.

They have since been off drugs for eight-and-a-half years without symptoms or signs of active virus.

The family is said to be "really delighted".

Most people need treatment every day to prevent HIV destroying the immune system and causing Aids.

Understanding how the child is protected could lead to new drugs or a vaccine for stopping HIV.

The child caught the infection from their mother around the time of birth in 2007. They had very high levels of HIV in the blood.

Early antiretroviral therapy was not standard practice at the time, but was given to the child from nine weeks old as part of a clinical trial.

Levels of the virus became undetectable, treatment was stopped after 40 weeks and unlike anybody else on the study - the virus has not returned.

Early therapy which attacks the virus before it has a chance to fully establish itself has been implicated in child "cure" cases twice before.

The "Mississippi Baby" was put on treatment within 30 hours of birth and went 27 months without treatment before HIV re-emerged in her blood.

There was also a case in France with a patient who has now gone more than 11 years without drugs.

Dr Avy Violari, the head of paediatric research at the Perinal HIV Research Unit in Johannesburg, said: "We don't believe that antiretroviral therapy alone can lead to remission.

"We don't really know what's the reason why this child has achieved remission - we believe it's either genetic or immune system-related."

'Virtual cure'

Some people are naturally better at dealing with an HIV infection - so-called "elite controllers". However, whatever the child has is different to anything that has been seen before.

Replicating it as a new form of therapy - a drug, antibody or vaccine - would have the potential to help other patients.

It is worth noting that while there is no active HIV in the child's body, the virus has been detected in the child's immune cells.

HIV can hide inside them - called latent HIV - for long periods of time, so there is still a danger the child could need drug treatment in the future.

The team in Johannesburg performed the study alongside the UK's MRC Clinical Trials Unit.

'One child'

Prof Diana Gibb, who is based in London, told the BBC News website: "It captures the imagination because you've got a virtual cure and it is exciting to see cases like this.

"But it is important to remember it is one child.

"HIV is still a massive problem around the world and we mustn't put all our eyes on to one phenomenon like this, as opposed to looking at the bigger issues for Africa."

Worldwide, 36.7 million people are living with HIV and only 53% of them are receiving antiretroviral therapy.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: "Further study is needed to learn how to induce long-term HIV remission in infected babies.

"However, this new case strengthens our hope that by treating HIV-infected children for a brief period beginning in infancy, we may be able to spare them the burden of lifelong therapy and the health consequences of long-term immune activation typically associated with HIV disease."

The results are being presented at the

Credit: BBC and James Gallegher

Going Undercover for Competitor Information: The STI Clinic Part 1

 

When you are developing a product, it is important to scour the market for rivals and competitors. Trust me, if it is a good idea there is going to be several options with their own unique features and drawbacks. We are developing rapid diagnostic tests for bacterial sexually transmitted diseases and this is a great idea, so we have our rivals.

Our first look was to see the what was available from the clinics. So, I called a couple of clinics near our accelerator, RebelBio, to get more information about their offerings and their views on people testing themselves at home. I came across Better2Know, who had locations in Ireland, the UK, South America. They offered at-clinic visits, nurse at-home visits, and box kits that allow self-collection for lab testing. Seeing this as a possible avenue for distribution of our rapid Chlamydia test, I checked out their Better2Know’s central website to learn more about their organization. It turns out they had a rapid test already for Chlamydia!

We had learned about a couple tests that were rapid, but had drawbacks for several reasons. The first is easy to use, but a blood based test. This test is primarily used in low resource settings and can tell if there was once Chlamydia there, but it doesn’t distinguish the past from a current infection. The second test, available for online order, does test for current infections, but it, too, has several drawbacks. First, they had multiple steps where the user could get lost and mess up the results. The test instructions were poorly translated from Chinese, the location of the kits manufacturer. And lastly, these kits were just not reliable. Half of the time they would tell the user that they didn’t have Chlamydia when they actually did.

So what was Better2Know using? Were they aware of these drawbacks of these rapid tests? Were they even using these tests that we knew of? So, I wrote their contact email and asked for more information. As a Sex Educator, I wrote:

“Good Afternoon,

I saw that you had instant Chlamydia tests. Being from the states I am used to slow turnaround times for testing for bacterial infections as they use complicated lab processes.

Are your tests developed in house? If not, would you be able to give me the distributor information?

Thank you for your work in this important field!

Kind Regards,”

I got a prompt response that quickly denied me the information I was seeking. I thought this was strange, as patients should have the right to know about the administered test’s reliability, the test distributor in case of a recall or any information that could impact their health!

The good news, dear reader, is that I had another way of finding out the information I was seeking. I was going in as a patient and I was going to question everything and watch how the test worked. My appointment is tomorrow. No matter how many times I have gotten tested, I always get butterflies. #StaypositiveTestnegative :)

A little about the science about the two tests for those inquisitive souls. Both of the rapid tests available use the same immunology based technology as a HIV rapid test or pregnancy test. Both of these tests use immune proteins to recognize a target, but one looks for the subjects personal immune proteins while the other looks for the hormone or bacteria directly. A color tag is added to the immune protein which changes color once it has attached to its target. The user sees this as a blue line if enough of the immune proteins find their target.

In the HIV test, the immune proteins in the test look for the subject’s own immune proteins that are made only when the person has caught the disease. This is how the test in the low resource settings works. While this is appropriate for latent viral infections, because subject always has the disease, for bacterial infections it can be misleading. Chlamydia can be caught and cured multiple times. That means with this type of test, if someone tests positive once they will always test positive, even if they were cured.

The second test works like a pregnancy test where the immune proteins look for the signal protein itself, human gonadotropin, or the bacteria in this case. This test uses a swab sample from the user, which is then suspended in a developing fluid. These proteins link to the the bacteria in the sample and only that type of bacteria. In a way the protein fits with the bacteria like two matching puzzle pieces. When enough of the protein bacteria pair up, a blue line is seen in the test window on the kit. While these tests can tell whether or not there is a current bacterial infection, but not reliably. Most of the time and infection is missed because it require 100,000 or more bacteria to be present and hopes that the outside of the bacteria doesn’t change, which it does.

Look for our upcoming blogs about my findings and milestones as we bring your at-home STI test into reality.

https://sex-positive.net

Part 2: The day at the clinic with all the questions

To schedule my undercover investigation, I went to Better2Know’s website and booked my tests. Although I was after the Chlamydia test, I thought “why not just do them all.” A comprehensive panel set the company back €430, yikes. The tests are given anonymously, so I wouldn’t have to wear my ape suit disguise. I simply gave a name of my choice, that I could give at the clinic, and was assigned a pin number as a reference for my results. Rather than having their own clinics, Better2KNow hires out clinics to conduct their tests. This was going to be an adventure.

I went into the Union Quay Medical Centre and there was no reference to Better2Know, but there was also no induction paperwork to fill in, thank god! I went into the exam room, had my blood drawn, my sites swabbed and urine collected. While we waited for my results to develop, I began my discovery. I asked the nurse about the tests, remarking on the novelty of a rapid Chlamydia test, how cool! She was open to talk, as she was with the clinic and not with Better2Know. She had travelled all over the world as a nurse and worked extensively in the emergency room. Surprisingly, she had only worked with rapid tests at this clinic. She told me that all of the tests were provided by Better2Know. Her relationship with Better2Know was comprised of two in person visits: one for the day of training for the tests and a second to follow-up to see how she was getting on. They left a fine laminated book as a reference for her as to how each test was to be conducted and evaluated.

The Chlamydia test was visually the same as the one marketed online by the Chinese manufacturer, the one where half of the patients with Chlamydia test negative (see part 1). With this rapid test, the patient is swabbed in the right places, the swab is put into one solution and the whole thing shook to release the bacteria. A second solution is added. Then a droplet of the mixed solutions is put on a strip and a color line then indicates a positive result. I also choose to get the standard urine test as well, as a control method…so the jury is still out for my results.

While Chlamydia is not a disease that requires reporting to the authorities in Ireland, all the others I was tested for are; however, it is the entity that orders the test, rather than the nurse or technician administering the test that has the responsibility for reporting and doing patient follow-up. Dear reader, I was negative for all of my rapid tests, but if I weren’t, no one would have to know except for those who I told out of the goodness of my heart. Under normal circumstances of a positive result, the clinic would report to the authorities certain bit of data about me. Then, of course they would prescribe me antibiotics for my bacterial infections and even give me prescription for my partner. In the case of HIV, HepB, or HepC, they would have referred me out to a specialized doctor and done the expected reporting. Better2Know was responsible for ordering the tests as a proxy for me, so they would be responsible for referring me or reporting me, or as their website stated, I could simply print out the results and show them to my doctor.

I had to move my appointment, as the nurse was to able to meet me at my preferred time. This was ok for me, but it could have delayed a needed diagnosis for someone else. My nurse was very friendly and informative. And at least for her, and for me, she has never has had to diagnose a positive result. Whew! #StayPositveTestNegative

The structures are in place that allow for people to be their own doctor through facilitators like Better2Know. A person orders their test/s and chooses how to follow-up and even can have the authority prescribe antibiotics to their partner, sort of. If they have follow-up questions, they can refer themselves out to a doctor or the hotline provided by Better2Know. Since patients can take on the capacity of doctors in so many steps in the STI diagnosis pathway, why not take the test at home? Keep an appointment for yourself?

That future is near, my dear reader. Follow the progress of the one-step wonder as we make at-home tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Do you like playing doctor?

https://sex-positive.net

What’s in a Name?

 

Naming is very important and this goes without saying. Naming a company is its own special case. The name is your product, your services, and your mission all wrapped up into one. In addition, the name needs to be memorable and easy to spell, in this day and age, so it can be surfaced on Google. And if your are a business to consumer brand, like us, the name also needs to be easy to pronounce and hear. When giving a name to our company, we wanted to move away for the conventional naming scheme in our business space because we are different and so are our customers.

We are different because we are designing diagnostics for the real world, not for a trained specialist in a sterile lab. For that reason, we wanted to stay away from the conventional science company and diagnostic names. We were familiar with the big brands, the big players, Roche and Abbott. The big guys have already done the work to establish their names as industry standards in lab diagnostics, but our customer doesn’t wear a lab coat and isn’t buyer for a hospital. Our customer is the man or lady on the street, with likely no knowledge or care for the names of these large industry players. Then there are the emerging diagnostic brands. When it comes to the little companies, emerging on the field, their names are clever interpretations of scientific terms or just misspellings of the target for their test. And the names just leave feeling of sterility, disease and awkwardness. Names like bio this and that, something something omnics. If we chose that paradigm, we too would drown in a sea of similar sounding products. Maybe this is effective marketing, but they are still dealing with people. And more importantly, would OUR customer think they knew what they were buying?

Our customers are different because they are not lab technicians or hospital representatives. We are focused on the everyday you and me. We wanted to focus not on features, but a deeper driver of human decision making, emotions. What do we want our customers to feel when they are buying our product? That is, in part, our mission: to change how people feel. We want our customer to feel different than they normally do when they go to the clinic, less like a patient. Right now, testing means going in for an appointment, spilling the beans, and giving a stranger some of your fluids. This is pretty impersonal, for personal health, and can leave a person feeling pathologized rather than proactive. Instead they could have a feeling of ease, responsibility, and dare I say feel sexy when they are testing for STIs. When our customers buy our product, we do not want them to think disease, but self-care and positivity. There is another aspect to naming that conveys the complexity of the product. This area of diagnosis has been in the hands of doctors and can feel out of our customer’s league. Names that communicated the cool technology and molecular science we have cleverly concealed in the device would undermine our customer’s belief that they can do this test. The science stuff we feared would turn off customers who were not budding biohackers or medical students. We want our customers to feel capable of doing the test on themselves as we have designed it. So we made sure our name met KISS standards, keep it super simple.

Now choosing Sex+, Sex Positive, we felt conveyed a lot of what we wanted our customers to know and feel about our product. We all joke, but sex, it sells. Our name is meant to be provocative, memorable, and meaningful. Our name tells you what our products are about: plus or positive are terms referring to testing results; and sex is the way people get what our are detecting. But our name is more than a marketing ploy. We are a company all about sex and our goal removing the shame and coldness from STI diagnosis. Our name reflects a social movement to make sex communication safe and healthy. #StayPositiveTestNegative

All this being said, we have had mixed reviews on our name choice. Some people love the name, what the name conveys, and see the value in keeping it easy and memorable for word of mouth sales. But others have brought up some concerns about the name, concerns that our company might be confused with industries less savory, like pornography.

We have had issues with our emails or websites being blocked because they contain the word “sex” when approaching grant organizations in Ireland. This is pretty funny to us, as all the pornography sites and stores we have come across allude to sex, but rarely ever utter the actual word “sex” in their title page. If you type “sex” into a search engine, it isn’t porn sites that pop up, but fashion and health magazines. If you type “sex positive,” loads of pages come up concerning healthy sex communication and sex advocacy organizations, but not porn.

I would like to say that we have no issues with the sex industry at any level, but could this affect our marketing? We embrace the controversy. We are a business afterall and our social goal is to have more and better communication about sex. With a company name like ours, we allow no ambiguity or no elaborate dance around what our product is about. We are happy to talk more with you or your mother about sex and our mission to change the discourse around sexually transmitted infections.

We are looking for input. So tells us what you think by visiting our site:

https://sex-positive.net/contact

Top 5 Reasons People Don’t Get Tested for STDs

 

We want to save sex lives one test at a time. As soon as someone begins to have sex they become our customer. Despite efforts of officials and institutions to hold screening events, open free clinics, and prescribe doctors screen their patients, the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections is on the rise. This is amazing to me because bacterial infections, like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, generally speaking, are easily cured with antibiotics. Why are these diseases not eradicated? The answer: people do not get cured of a disease when they are not aware that they need treatment. Our goal is to address reasons that prevent people from getting tested so that our customer can avoid complications of a long term untreated infection and so they can avoid infecting someone they like. Here are the top 5 reasons as to why 1 in 2 people fail to get tested.

The first is education. If you don’t know that you are at risk, then you won’t get tested. The quality of sexual education varies from region to region. From what we have surveyed, most developed countries do teach about HIV and how it is contracted. Education about Chlamydia and Gonorrhea is less consistent. While you may receive comprehensive sexual education in Brazil that starts in preschool, you won’t be taught about these highly contagious and prevalent infections in Germany. Not only does the quality of education vary regionally, it can also vary temporally. As we see in the United States, funding for sex education of schools is positively related to the the prevalence of new HIV cases. With the emergence of amazing preventative HIV medication, sex education amount of funding is likely going to be cut United States. And this directly affects the time and content of the education received. For older populations that matured before the AIDS crisis, the only sex education they received was from their parents, which was close to none. This population, leaving committed relationships now that their kids are grown, make their debut into dating with poorer information than their kids. While we may not be able to educate the world, we have a sex educator on staff, and we are currently designing online content to so our customers can have clear unbiased information about STIs and other sex education tips about how to do sex right and with consent.

The second is confidentiality. Sexual health is different that other aspects of health because it involves what we do with our cloths off with someone else. For most people, sexual intimacy is private and most people would prefer it to stay that way on the giving and receiving end. Although the Sex Revolution happened 50 years ago and we have movies such as 50 Shades of Grey topping box office charts, sex is still steeped in stigma and that stigma concerns the fun parts of sex. The embarrassing parts about sex are barely mentioned. Rarely do we find someone who talks with their closest friends about sexually transmitted infections. The people that should be informed about our sexual health, health care professionals, do not always have the best bedside manner and their personal opinions are not always kept confidential. I continue to hear stories of people being shamed at the clinic for their behaviors or orientation. Not to mention, opening up to a primary care doctor that someone has had since childhood, can feel very similar to opening up to parents about sexual health. There is also the aspect of mandated reporting for certain transmitted infection. While, doctors and nurses are required by law to keep patient information confidential, in some regions, when there is positive test, names of previous lovers are taken down and the person being tested is reported to the health authorities. And then there are those that are worried about being spotted going into the clinic, like this is an immoral act in itself. Maybe that is why we still see pregnancy tests for sale at pharmacies in countries where the test is free at the clinic. When you test yourself, it is on your terms and you choose who you tell.

The third is that taking time to go to a clinic is inconvenient. If there are symptoms, the normal thing to do is make an appointment, wait for that date to come around, and wait at least an hour at the clinic. If there are positive results, often a return visit to the clinic is necessary to pick up the prescription. While this works, it is really inconvenient and imagine telling your boss that you need to go to the doctor when you don’t look sick. If you are a professional, you may be able to take off with no notice, but most people work jobs where there is much more scrutiny concerning time taken off, no matter the reason. Anyone who has worked in the service industry can relate to this. Our device will be available online and in the local pharmacy, grocery store, and even gas station, so anyone can buy our test device for themselves and a friend without having to take time off.

The fourth reason is that there is often no symptoms. Chlamydia and other common sexually transmitted infections often do not have symptoms or the symptoms resolve on their own, but the infection stays present. When there is no indication that we have caught something except risky behavior from the night before, it is easy to convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong. Many women neglect symptoms as being due to the many other issues that arise with having a vagina. This is why there are more and more stories about STIs popping up in committed relationships. While couples drop condom use after committing to each other, clearing out the past lover’s gifts may not be in plans and maybe too embarrassing to bring up. Sadly, these shared infections are often blamed on unfaithful behavior, rather than the failure of basic screening for STI’s between new and old sexual partners. Nagging worry is bothersome, but is it enough to make an appointment?

And the fifth, and most tragical, is that some people do not have access to clinics. This may surprise readers who live in large cities around the world. Limited access to healthcare screening is not limited low resource settings in rural Africa or South America. If you live in Louisiana, USA, your nearest clinic may be a 90 minute drive. And this situation is getting worse for Americans, as the current administration continues to cut funding to not for profit clinics that lead to closures. For people who lack access to clinics, even with perfect knowledge and desire, they are left to hope that they are healthy. Fortunately, our test will be available online wherever Amazon delivers. So no one will be left to worry and can have their peace of mind despite their distance from a clinic.

Getting tested or screened can can be invasive or inconvenient, but we wanted to address another issue for our customers, the wait. For any reader who has taken the time to go to a clinic knows the joy of waiting for the phone call. It is a week. Depending on your healthcare professional protocol, you may be waiting for a call or hoping for no call. In either case, you wait seven days in panic each time your phone rings in anticipation of the guilty verdict. This always racks my nerves, even if the fair reader is a stoic. We improved on the current clinic technology to overcome this wait and the phone call, by designing our device so that you can reliably test yourself and have your peace of mind and results in 30 minutes or less.

With all this self-testing, is there a way to self treat? Indeed, if you live in the UK or the USA, you will be able to call our doctor hotline and get hooked up with some sage advice and an ePrescription, so that you can get treated with never having to go into a clinic. This infrastructure trend is likely to expand to your neighborhood, soon. If you happen to not be in these regions, we will work with clinicians to educate them about our test, so you’ll only need to stop by once to your local healthcare professional or maybe just call them for a follow-up on a positive test.

Do you have sex education in school? Have you been screened for STIs? If not, we’d like to know why. We are making this test for a person like you. Contact us, share your story, and help us make the best personal health screen.

https://sex-positive.net/contact

Making success out of other’s failure : How 5 days of travel, a magic question, and impromptu living yielded to a potential big league investor.

 

Sitting in bus on my journey back from a week of travel from Dublin to Berlin to Amsterdam and back to Dublin for conferences and meetings alike, I am reflecting. There has been a recurring story I’ve received from investors, interested press, and people on the street alike: “I’ve made a tremendous amount of mistakes on my journey, here’s what I did wrong.” While this is a theme that most people have come across in their lives and the rhetoric seldom changes, I’ve recently employed a mentor’s lesson in listening to understand this story more deeply. Bill Liao, the mentor leads RebelBio, the accelerator program my company is participating in. He has been very keen on the selling technique that is listening. I paraphrase when I quote him:

“The key to selling, the key to getting someone to put a term sheet on the table, and the key to success in both business and in your personal life is your ability to make people feel heard.”

There’s nothing new here. Making people feel heard is the basis of forming a genuine connection with someone. It is a means of generating that key characteristic of a valuable conversation. What Bill suggests, and I mention next, is nothing new either. Listening is a powerful tool in the game of social engineering because it gives you deep insights into the people around you — all real conversations require listening, but the way you listen can be a key value-add to a conversation. Before I share with you the secret script that makes the magic, I’d like to mention that this technique isn’t a form of manipulation. In reality it is a tool that allows you to understand who the people are around you: to understand who they are, what they’re doing, and, most importantly, what their current needs and struggles are. By understanding this, we can easily begin to understand our business or personal relationship with them from the perspective of helping them. By listening, and only listening, you learn the true nature of their problem. The secret sauce to listening is a simple question, the script everyone should memorize:

“Can you tell me more about that?”

Simple, almost stupidly so, though I’d like to think that stupidity and eloquence are interchangeable bits of speech. Over the course of this last business trip, I focused on the task of learning more about peoples experiences and asked this question, ad nauseam, sitting in the perspective of the retroactive ‘how do I help satisfy your needs.’ With investors, old friends, and potential customers alike, I would start with a thought provoking question, then listen to their answer, and let them run mad with their experiences and stories. For the sake of focusing on the developing my start up, I’ll tell you how listening landed me a big league investor.

Berlin: Where lunch conversations are pivoting.

Like many conferences, it featured pre-planned meetings, showcases, a pitch battle, and interesting talks such as the history of biotech and a special presentation by the CEO of Oxitech about his GMO mosquitos. Naturally, the meetings were interesting, discussions fruitful, the talks fascinating, but impromptu meetings with people, as always, were the best. And this was was no exception when it came to lunch, much needed after three hours of scheduled meetings and talks. I sat down, randomly, with two gentlemen at a table with my catered fish and chips. We made polite introductions. As it just so happened, the gentlemen were representatives from a VC firm that had visited our accelerator just one week before, but I had missed meeting because I had been in Vienna at another conference. The two gentlemen were from Merck Ventures, the investment arm of the massive pharma company, and were out and about doing their thing scouting for companies and being engaged with the space. One of the gentlemen knew all about my company, as he has heard a video version of a pitch during his visit. The other fellow, he knew nothing; so, I took the opportunity to give him a conversational pitch, with all of the added details of who we are, what we do, regulatory hurdles, road to market, etc. He gave a wonderfully Austrian smile, a bit of a laugh, then told me how he had been working on a project years ago that was tremendously similar. I wasn’t too surprised, making rapid STI tests has been a need for quite some time now and the idea to go direct to consumers isn’t a genius notion either. What was surprising, was a summation of his experience in a sentence. Again, I paraphrase:

“‘We spent 25 million dollars and 5 years trying to do the exact same thing and failed.’

My heart sank a bit like a gag reflex, teetering between the thought of ‘WTF have I been doing for the last few months’ and ‘where can I get a cigarette.’ I held my ground and proceeded with the grand question. “Can you tell me more about that?” We talked tech and scope. Then gave me a key piece of advice:

“‘Your focus is a bit myopic in the actual application of your product.’

‘Tell me more,’ I now instinctively have droning in my head like a harmonium.

‘What you’re trying to sell to investors shouldn’t be a test for the detection of STIs. Sure, you’re first target market is the at home and point of care settings for chlamydia and gonorrhea detection. But to limit what you’re building to that is just plain stupid.’ He continued to elaborate….

“What you’re actually building is a device that can detect any pathogen. That could be in urine, water, potentially blood: You’re replacing a technique that’s the standard in molecular biology, and making it remotely available for a qualitative end that can be obtained anywhere without a lab. You need to sell THAT vision. No offense to STIs, but F*** them. You’re making something that could be MUCH bigger than that.”

We exchanged contact info, I thanked him, and walked away with a keen satisfaction and a preoccupied glaze of fear. With that, I ran off to another meeting with my head buzzing knowing how much work I would need to do; edit business plans, pitch decks, and the lot of materials that I would send out to press and investors. Note to self and the reader: “TMI does not exist” was a motto of mine. I just don’t have a threshold for what I can tolerate hearing. I just know what questions not to ask to avoid hearing things that give me the feeling I felt after that conversation. I never thought an open question like “can you tell me more about that?” would leave me murmuring to myself: “Keep your sh*t together, man.”

Amsterdam: Where capitalizing on learned knowledge brought captital.

For some fantastic reason, some of the best experiences happen over food. This time is no different. Two days after Berlin, I’d planned to visit some with some cousins in Alkmaar just outside of the city, for a day while on a layover. Instead of a simple “let me show you around the city” my cousin offered to introduce me to his childhood best friend, an investor. I couldn’t refuse. We drove into Amsterdam, spend some time walking the canals and talking life, then finally walk into a beautiful restaurant and sit with a normally dressed man. Embarrassingly, my Dutch only could get me through 5 minutes of conversation before we started to get technical and I asked to switch to English. I explained my company, and gave him a 10 minute rundown of our products with the Merck considerations. As we took a moment to pause and enjoy our food, I broke the silence, with my favorite delineation of the mystical question. ‘Can you tell me a bit of your story.’ There, he broke into childhood stories, his education experience, his break up with academia, and the story of how with a little bit of capital he was able to start one of the most successful businesses in the Netherlands. I continued to prod at early stage decision making strategies and he gave me some invaluable experience and perspective. As it so happens he emphasized a disdain for Venture Capital and the tendency for founders and inventors equity to be diluted round after round. Again, I paraphrase:

“When you’ve finally made something of your company, are rolling out and have revenue, so many founders are left with what? maybe 5%? That’s ridiculous. While providing capital and exchanging for percentage stake of a company is determined by risk and investment, how does that provide opportunity for the founder’s to generate anything new thereafter? After all, it’s the inventors and entrepreneurs that are creating the innovation, not the investors. The investors are taking a bit of a risk, but they can easily afford to.”

At that moment I swear my eyes were twinkling like an enthralled anime character. Someone who speaks like an entrepreneur, but is a hot and heavy investor. I’m listening.

“With my first company, I made that mistake. I ended up with a tiny percentage of the whole thing. I’ve seen it happen too many times. You go through seed, someone asks for 25% for $500k, then you need your A Series, they put in maybe $1.5 million and take 15% diluting the pool further, Series B comes along with another million, Series C maybe 5 million. You’d be lucky to have 10% once you hit revenue. Don’t fall for this, find a mentor who is outside of your business, listen to their advice, and never part with equity. Align yourself with people who believe in what you’re doing, and be extremely cautious.

“What do you want?” he asks me.

“What do you mean, out of life or for my company?” I responded, bewildered.

I told him how I started as a garage ‘biohacker’ and my dreams of using synthetic biology to designing materials, but how I kept running out of money, when only starting a project. In the end, all I want is to have the financial freedom to be creative and experiment while generating the capital from I need from a system that is inherently altruistic. Make the world a better place blah blah, have money, blah blah, be creative and enjoy, blah blah, not be held back by monetary inconvenience. He questions why my interests are so spread out, so non-linear and seemingly chaotic. I give him impromptu answers and he smiles, “sounds like you’re just like him,” pointing to his colleague. Then he said something that left me as stunned as my first lunch:

“Are you available at 4? I’d like you to meet my mentor and investment partner.”

They leave their business cards on the table like summoned by a magical question, shake my hand, and say they look forward to hearing from me. When it comes to growing a business, listening, exploring failure, and applying what you hear directly to your work, this is now my operating strategy. And while it sounds a bit like an overused cliche, it’s invaluable: listen before leaping.

Our Vision for Decentralized Health

 

Many of you know us as the STD diagnostic company. We are building something that can do much more than that. We are building consumer hardware that can detect anything with DNA, any life. This is because we use technology that mirrors the machinery that life uses to make itself. To target specific form of life, plant, animal, or in our case bacteria, we make specific DNA probes that match the DNA of the desired target organism. When there is a match, a chemical reaction occurs. This is what our hardware detects: the chemical reaction. We envision a future that all common bacterial infections could be diagnosed at home rapidly by the consumer, saving time and preventing the spread of disease that does not require intimacy to spread.

We first wanted to focus on sexually transmitted diseases because, unlike other pathogens, STDs are associated with sex and personal sexual behavior remains a taboo subject. This is the cause of projected stigma, felt shame, and steady rate of under-diagnosis. When someone needs to be tested or elects to be screened, they are silently admitting to sexual behavior, and sexual behavior that is not the Puritan sort. We wanted to allow people to keep their privates private, but still take care of their health. In addition, the bacteria that cause STDs are the most prevalent and the most contagious infectious disease diagnosed.

MRSA, strep throat, and pneumonia can also be caught by being intimate with someone carrying the bug and they pose serious health risks. While these infections do not carry the same social burden, there are issues in getting to the right diagnosis, both logistically and technically. Logistically to get treatment for these infections requires going to see a healthcare professional, just as it is for STDs. Many people are either to ill feeling to make it to the clinic when there is a health concern. Some are not able to get to a clinic because of time conflicts or geographic location. Maybe this explains why 33% turn to the internet to diagnose themselves. On the technical side, strep throat and pneumonia have similar symptoms to many other infections. To have the fastest recovery, requires an accurate diagnosis. For clinicians, they are pressed to see many patients and deliver a plan for the least amount of money. Hence, most healthcare professionals use basic heuristics that take into account what illnesses they have recently seen that week in the clinic and obvious symptoms to narrow down the cause of a patients malaise. Unfortunately, this leads to misdiagnoses of viral infections as bacterial infections or a rare infections as something common. Since each bacteria has its own unique DNA regions, our device would allow clinicians or the home user to get to rapid unequivocal diagnosis without guessing.

This is the future we can build with our consumer hardware. For anyone with children, our consumer hardware would bring peace of mind for parents, eager to know what ails their sick child. We could expect fast rapid diagnosis that could assist healthcare professionals in making the most accurate DNA based diagnoses. For highly contagious infections, requiring a person to go to a central location with other health compromised people seems like a recipe for a serious outbreak. Our consumer hardware will allow people to keep requested with their sickness, keeping the public safe, and themselves comfortable while still getting diagnosed and treated. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a rapid test that could tell if your kid had strep throat or not? Wouldn’t t be great to get a test dropped off by Amazon Prime then your prescription the very next day without ever having to leave your bed to go to a clinic?

When we talk to investors, hospital administrators, and colleagues they see a new future for personal health. We are making a future where diagnosis for common bacterial infections is decentralized so that we all benefit from personal comfort and ending the centralization of disease.

Where are we in our process? Do you want updates? Suggestions on infections to target? We want to hear from you! https://sex-positive.net/contact