Angelina Jolie (left) is now equally known for her aid work and preventative Double mastectomy; ABC Correspondent Amy Robach had a mammogram on air and learned she has breast cancer.

How to know if your breast cancer chemotheapy is working

The WaveCheck crowdfunding campaign wants every woman to know if her body is responding to treatment

If you follow breast cancer in the news, you know ABC correspondent Amy Robach recently had a mammogram last month on “Good Morning America” to demystify the procedure for women 40 and older.

To her surprise, Robach discovered she has breast cancer; she’s since had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

Last May, actor Angelina Jolie published a New York Times op-ed about her preventative double mastectomy after learning she carries the BRCA1 gene, which puts her at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Whether it’s a diagnosis or genetic predisposition, this sudden knowledge brings people like Robach and Jolie behind the empowering pink tide that surrounds breast cancer awareness.

While early diagnosis helps, the reality is that for every five women who take chemotherapy for breast cancer, only two get successful treatments.

That’s particularly true when the cancer has advanced.

It’s a staggering statistic, and perhaps explains why a woman might choose a mastectomy before she’s even diagnosed with cancer, as Jolie has done.

But it’s also not widely known.

Case in point: when I started working on WaveCheck’s Indiegogo campaign in August, I didn’t understand breast cancer’s reality. I’m lucky not to have had this disease or watched anyone close to me suffer through it (though I lost a friend to brain cancer a few weeks ago).
I simply didn’t know that when a woman is treated with chemotherapy, she typically waits four to six months to know whether her breast tumor is responding to treatment.

During this time, her physician may examine her tumor for changes in physical size but imaging tests are rare. As Dr. Gregory Czarnota, chief of radiation oncology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, will tell you, physical changes in tumor size don’t indicate a cancer’s virulence or correlate with long-term outcomes.

What’s occurring inside a woman’s breast cancer tumor when she takes chemotherapy is a mystery.

Or, at least, it was.

Nearly 20 years ago, Czarnota and his research partner, Professor Michael C. Kolios of Ryerson University, took the first steps toward discovering a clinical technique that combines ultrasound with new software to see inside breast tumor tissue.

It’s called WaveCheck and, in essence, if the image WaveCheck produces is red, the chemotherapy isn’t working.

If it’s yellow, the tumor is being destroyed.

WaveCheck works with standard ultrasound machines to produce images like this one. Its interface has been deliberately designed to make images that patients and their doctors can easily understand. The long-term goal is to use this clarity to help patients participate more actively in decisions about their chemotherapy.

When you consider the uncertainty that living with breast cancer—or even its possibility—creates for women like Robach, Jolie, and millions of their less famous sisters, this knowledge is potentially transformative.

In the future, knowing sooner that a treatment isn’t working may buy precious time needed to customize a treatment plan and save lives.

This potential to change the way breast cancer chemotherapy is monitored makes Czarnota and Kolios’ discovery rare in cancer innovation.

Unlike a drug that might take 10 to 15 years to reach clinics, WaveCheck could potentially be added to existing instruments and reach patients in three to five years.

And yet, for all of WaveCheck’s impressive, peer-reviewed studies (which you can find here and here), and early-stage support from cancer foundations or granting agencies (see this list), success is not guaranteed.

WaveCheck, like many medical technologies, sits on the cusp of what the commercialization industry calls the “Valley of Death”: the gap between the relatively modest funds required to take a technology off the lab bench and the far costlier later-stage development needed to refine its technology and ensure consistent results.

MaRS Innovation, where I work, exists to help address this gap; we’re always looking for new ways to bring technology to the people who need it.

We’ve seen crowdfunding work spectacularly well for one of our tech start-ups. And so we decided to crowdfund WaveCheck’s medical research.

Crowdfunding’s beauty lies in removing the middlemen between inventors and those holding the purse strings.

In our case, crowdfunding would knock at least two years off WaveCheck’s path to widespread availability.

Through Indiegogo, we’ve raised $52,000 to open the first of three clinical sites in January with our research partners across Ontario and in the United States.

We’ve partnered with them and #GivingTuesday to meet our goal of $96,987 by December 4.

If just 1,500 people donate $30, Dr. Czarnota and Professor Kolios will have the funds they need to start showing that WaveCheck works as well in other leading cancer centers as it already does for women at Sunnybrook.

Better still, they’d be able to begin in January 2014, not two years from now after applying for traditional funding sources.

The inherent transparency built into WaveCheck promises to change the way doctors monitor breast cancer treatment, and the way patients participate in decisions about their health.

But my passion for this project flows from my certainty that, should breast cancer emerge in my future, I want WaveCheck to be there for me, and for every Amy and Angelina the world over.

As I write this, we have less than 57 hours to reach our goal. If you can help, whether by donating, spreading the word or recommending this post, I thank you on behalf of the entire WaveCheck team.
Update: You can still support WaveCheck through the Sunnybrook Foundation website. Just make sure you put “WaveCheck” in the comment field.
Update 2: WaveCheck has received a $100,000 catalyst grant from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, which means the first partner site will open in May 2014 at MD Anderson Cancer Centre. We’re so pleased! Read the announcement here.
Update 3: WaveCheck’s crowdfunding data was part of a Canadian-led study on crowdfunding medical research. You can read about that here.
Update 4: Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and MaRS Innovation have announced a partnership with GE Healthcare to co-develop WaveCheck as a product for the clinic.
I’ve also written about the high emotional burn rate involved in running a crowdfunding campaign. You can read that on Medium here.