Dr. Inbal Zafir-Lavie, CEO of Gina Life, on using AI/ML to reduce mortality rates for ovarian cancer

| Daniel Sevitt

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The first and most chilling statistic that Dr. Inbal Zafir-Lavie, co-founder and CEO of Gina Life shares is that 75% of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are already in the metastatic stage. You may have also heard this described stage IV cancer. The odds of survival are one in five.

The work she is doing at Gina Life, a femtech startup, is about early detection of ovarian cancer and other diseases related to women’s health.

“I have a PhD from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Immunology. My expertise is in how the immune system deals with cancer. After my PhD I worked for 10 years in the industry including a relocation for some years to Philadelphia in the US.

Dr. Inbal Zafir-Lavie

Somehow my career is intertwined with my life. My sister Hava was diagnosed with cancer. In her case it was colorectal cancer. I knew the tests. I knew what it meant. I knew a lot, but I couldn’t cure her because of late detection. After four years Hava passed away aged 38.

When the time came to come back to Israel, I was introduced to Dr. Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef. She started talking to me about improving early detection. She was looking for a CEO to help found the company and she wanted it to be a woman.”

The idea that Shlomit had was to collect and analyze vaginal secretions from women. Dr. Yehudai-Reshef had some proof of concept that this analysis could provide a wealth of information about women’s health but needed to form a company and raise funding to build out the idea and move towards a product.

The biggest question at this point is why no one had ever tried this before. Dr. Zafir-Lavie tackled this question with considerable diplomacy.

“Let’s look at a scientific answer before a political one. Secretions are very easy to collect. It’s like saliva. But it’s not high volume. It’s only recently that we have been able to measure many, many proteins in really low sample volumes. I only need a few drops. Even ten years ago we didn’t know how to do that. It’s still quite expensive, but the price is dropping. We have some anecdotal studies from the 1980s, but they just didn’t have enough data and they didn’t really know what they were looking for.

Another reason is that a lot of the research is being done by men who are not aware of this fluid. I don’t mean the physicians, but the research was not being done and so there was nothing for the physicians to look at.

One of the biggest obstacles for us to overcome is awareness. Over time doctors and patients have learned how important they each can be in early detection of breast or prostate cancer. A simple, non-invasive self-examination can be enough to raise a flag and initiate further testing or treatment. We believe that the best way to deal with ovarian cancer, which is a very mean cancer, is by identifying it early and starting treatment while it is still in stage I or stage II.

For me it is about closing the circle and helping with my grief. I couldn’t be doing anything else.”

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Gina Life’s vision for the future is a product that women can at home to self test. Dr. Zafir-Lavie spoke about moving the company towards that point.

“One of the odd benefits of the pandemic is that people are more aware of testing themselves at home. Our goal is to develop something accessible for women to use. It will be very user friendly. There is a genetic component to some ovarian cancer cases and women over the age of 55 are also at increased risk. This is an engaged community. Women are contacting us to sign up for clinical trials. They want the answers that their doctors don’t currently have. Knowing who to test and making those tests available, accessible and affordable is vital. With regular testing of women at risk, we learn what they look like when they’re healthy and we can spot when their proteins start to drift towards a signature we recognize as indicating cancer and raise the flag early.

Right now we’re running clinical trials in Israel and planning to move into the US and the UK. We are gathering so much data about the proteins being collected and using AI and machine learning to establish a baseline against which anyone can measure.

We expect by the end of 2023 to launch our first product. It will not be for home use. It will be a test in a clinic where the physician will collect the sample and forward it to a central lab. It will be simple and it will start the process of educating women about the accessibility of this kind of testing. I’m optimistic that we will revolutionize the field of ovarian cancer diagnostics in the US, and we haven’t even begun to talk about making such a test available for developing nations.”

One of the things Dr. Zafir-Lavie understood when taking on the job of CEO of a tech company was her lack of experience on the technical side of things.

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“That’s why we needed Microsoft so much and why we found working with Microsoft for Startups so valuable. I’m a CEO whose expertise is in biology and diagnostics, I needed to understand how things work on the software/technical side. That doesn’t mean I’m writing code. I have an expert for that. But I need to understand what we can achieve and where should I be careful.

This was a huge advantage for me working with Microsoft for Startups because now I’m able to speak with an AI expert in his or her language. She understands what I want, and I understand what they want and how we’re going to build the whole thing.

Having that connection to Microsoft and being able to collaborate with experts in this field and in the Microsoft Cloud has been tremendously valuable. I can connect now and get answers to technical questions, but also connect further down the road when we have an app and we can explore co-selling opportunities.

Not having to worry about security is huge and knowing that there is a huge hub for us to tap into when we’re ready to connect. I can’t wait to get to that point.”

Inbal founded Gina Life with a mission. Inspired by the loss of her sister due to a late diagnosis, she is building a company to make a difference for women around the world.

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