Covid-19 overload has decreased routine check-ups and screening: an AI-powered platform promises to help people find guaranteed information and apply for new clinical trials. Interview with founder Chiara Thanner.
In times of pandemic, when hospitals are overloaded and attention to other diseases has been dangerously low for months, any guaranteed and reliable tool is useful for orientation. And possibly shorten diagnosis and treatment times. CuriaTM is an application (available for iOS and Android) that tries to do exactly that: it offers cancer patients the possibility of accessing accurate and individually structured information thanks to a questionnaire on their clinical history. The artificial intelligence, monitored by a qualified team, collects information on treatments, clinical trials and experts from accredited sources such as drug regulatory agencies and international clinical trial registries, keeping it constantly updated. And it provides precise guidance on how to move forward.
The problem of reliable sources
In 2020, 377,000 new cancer diagnoses are expected in Italy, and more than 70% of Italian cancer patients said that using health apps is very helpful in increasing their knowledge about the disease. “For those with cancer, it is very important to search online for possible treatment options for their disease or a second opinion. However, much of the information is outdated or irrelevant. CuriaTM technology is designed to provide only relevant information in an easy-to-understand format,” explains Chiara Thanner, who is responsible for the app. The app also allows patients to apply for clinical trials that are of interest to them, allowing them to explore different research and treatment options, including the most advanced and frontier ones.
The app has formed a partnership with IncontraDonna Onlus, an association that works to prevent breast cancer: “The international scene is moving towards an increasing involvement of patients and citizens in clinical research,” explains president Adriana Bonifacino. “In Italy there is still a lot of work to be done to raise awareness among the population about the possibility of actively choosing to take part in a clinical trial.
The 28-year-old Thanner developed the app – which has already had over 5,000 users four weeks since its launch – together with her team. From an Italian-German family, she has previously worked at EY, Goldman Sachs and the German embassy in Italy, and in her presence in the German and US media she has spoken about Curia’sTM mission and the importance of being an informed patient. We interviewed her for StartupItalia.
How did the idea for CuriaTM come about?
Many patients have contacted us with the same three questions: What are the treatment options for my condition? Which clinical trials can I participate in? Who are the experts specialised in the treatment of my disease? CuriaTM provides cancer patients with access to accurate information throughout their cancer journey and does so through artificial intelligence technology from Innoplexus, the company CuriaTM is part of. Patients asked us how they could use this B2B technology to find relevant information about their condition and so we built the app as an accessible and free channel. After our launch last June in Germany we wanted to launch it in Italy because we want to encourage patient education, underline the value of scientific research and make people understand that information leads to exploring more possibilities for treatment. In Italy, for example, there is still a certain mistrust and unfamiliarity with clinical trials, and one of the reasons is the lack of adequate and accessible information tools.
What are the scientific guarantees: are you exploring further partnerships, e.g. with hospitals and research centres?
The content of the app is reviewed and approved by medical experts. We understand that it is scary to say ‘when it comes to my health information, I trust a machine’. In fact, CuriaTM combines the best of AI with the experience and expertise of doctors to curate the information offered in the app. The technology screens only trusted sources such as clinical trial registries and international regulatory agencies to build its dynamic database. Our doctors then check the quality of the information, which is displayed in the app in a format that is easy for the patient to understand, and individualised for their condition. Through this combination, we try to solve the problem of misinformation related to the use of Dr. Google, and to make information from institutional sites more accessible to the patient. In addition, we are working closely with hospitals and research centres, especially in the context of the CuriaTM function that allows requests for studies to be submitted from the app. When a patient submits a request for a trial, together with his doctor, we act as a bridge between the patient and the clinical trial coordinators. We are a new reality but, in Italy, we are already collaborating with the patients’ association IncontraDonna Onlus, and we aim to work with healthcare organisations that share our mission of building an infrastructure in which patients can be more involved in their cancer journey.
How important is it to be able to get timely guidance at a time like the present, when Covid-19 is forcing healthcare facilities to neglect screening and other control programmes for so many cancer diseases, or discouraging people from going for check-ups in hospitals or surgeries?
Prevention is always better than cure, unfortunately it is a fact that in the last year annual screenings did not take place as usual. The health care system is under unprecedented stress, so in order to be able to intervene in good time, it is now more important than ever for every citizen to inform themselves about their personal cancer risk and symptoms. If a person notices a symptom outside their screening regimen, it is crucial that the pandemic does not discourage them from contacting their doctor and going for check-ups. It must be made clear that delays in diagnosis and treatment lead to a dangerous increase in cancer mortality rates. For example, in the United States, it has already been calculated that there will be 10,000 more deaths over the next 10 years from breast and colorectal cancer. In Italy, the National Screening Observatory has instead estimated that due to Covid-19 more than 2 million fewer screenings were carried out in the first 9 months of 2020.