When Bárbara Oliveira ran her first medical focus group for breast cancer patients, she discovered something she didn’t fully expect: hair loss was a priority issue for almost everyone who participated.
“It was huge,” Oliveira, a research fellow at NUI Galway and the co-founder of Luminate Medical, a company that aims to prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss, said. “It was one of the key things people talked about: their hair.”
Everyone knows someone affected by cancer, but few of us, Oliveira said, fully grasp the extent to which hair loss worries those affected.
Luminate, a medtech firm that Oliveira established jointly with Aaron Hannon and Prof Martin O’Halloran from NUIG in 2019, is not the only company offering a medical solution to the problem. But it claims to offer a new type of treatment that is less invasive and uncomfortable than other options on the market.
“Most preventative solutions are based on cryogenic therapy,” Oliveira, a Portuguese native who came to Ireland more than eight years ago, said. “They’re essentially caps that patients can wear during their chemotherapy, and they’re incredibly cold. They do work, but they’re really painful.”
While cryogenic therapies attempt to move blood away from the scalp during treatment, preventing chemotherapy reaching the hair follicles, Luminate has taken a different tack.
The Galway-based and Enterprise Ireland-backed company has developed a compression-based technology that performs a similar function, but does not rely on freezing temperatures.
“Essentially, we are trying to do the same thing that cold is, in that we are trying to prevent the chemotherapy from reaching the hair follicles and destroying them,” Oliveira said. “But we do so without cold. We do it with our own technology, in a portable and comfortable way.”
Luminate has developed a prototype of the new technology which has been through animal trials. By the end of 2022, Oliveira and Hannon hope to enter clinical trials to prove its efficacy, and they aim to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration by 2025.
Luminate is clear about its global ambitions, Oliveira said. “In the US and Europe, there are three million cancer patients who have hair loss. And out of all cancer patients that undergo chemotherapy, about 60 per cent are at risk of losing their hair. So it’s a huge percentage, and there’s huge scalability.”
The company has already raised €2.17 million in funding from the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund, which is run by the Department of Enterprise with the support of Enterprise Ireland, and has spent much of the summer seeking further investment privately. It aims to add four new staff members to its existing three-person workforce in the coming year as it finalises the development of its prototype.
Patients themselves are central to Luminate’s ambitions, Oliveira said. “The most important thing for us is to keep on engaging with patients. We’re completely patient-focused – that’s our main driver. We want to understand what product we need to develop and how we’re going to get it into the hands of patients.”