How does one go from leadership roles at Facebook and Google to founding one of America’s most progressive medical companies? FOCUS spoke about this online at the DLD in Munich with Mary Lou Jepsen. The electrical engineer not only wants to use a new sound wave technology to detect strokes, but even to cure cancer and alleviate depression.
FOCUS online: What do you see with your technology?
Mary Lou Jepsen: We’re going to focus on the brain. While you can take an EKG and turn it upside down, that wouldn’t tell you if someone is having a stroke. We are currently aiming for approval from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration, editor’s note) for these stroke detectors. For example, an ambulance crew would have a better chance of detecting a stroke. But there are other fields of application. So the same headset can also heal brain tumors.
Wait, do you mean heal or find?
Jepsen: The FDA is pretty careful about the word ‘cure’. But in initial tests, we are five to ten times more effective than chemotherapy in fighting glioblastoma in human brain cells (a malignant brain tumor, editor’s note). We’re in the process of expanding testing to mice and could do human testing in as little as a year.
And how does it work?
Jepsen: We modulate sound waves. To do this, we use the mechanical peculiarities of crabs: Fast-growing, aggressive types of crabs are like fragile ships, they fall apart quickly. So we burst the cancer cells like an opera singer bursts a wine glass. This works because the cancer cells are not as stable as normal cells. Your goal is to quickly divide and kill. So we do not harm the healthy tissue. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, which both damage cancer cells and change the DNA of healthy cells.
Detect and heal – as the same technology in one device?
Jepsen: The basis of what we do is the modulation of light and sound waves. We not only change the intensity of the light, but also the phases of the light. We can distribute these on a camera chip and thus make the changes in the light wave phases visible. We can also shape or focus the waves with sound so that we can direct the energy. For example, we can attack glioblastomas in nerve cells. We simply spread the waves over the whole area at a certain frequency, but only the cancer cells burst. And when the cells burst, what’s left of it sort of inoculates the brain against those types of cells. We’ve been shocked at how good the test results are so far. We just tried it – and it works!
Mary Lou Jepsen is an electrical engineer with a doctorate and various professorships, for example at MIT in Boston. She worked in leadership roles at Google and Facebook before founding her company Openwater in 2016, specializing in the use of wave technology in medicine.
How do you explain that just blasting the bad cells works so well?
Jepsen: It works because the waves are adapted to the weaknesses of the aggressive tumor cells. Normally, cells take a long time to grow, tumor cells develop quickly, which is why they are so unstable.
So it’s purely mechanical?
Jepsen: Exactly, it’s a mechanic that we can use without cutting anyone up. Light and sound penetrate skin, bones and muscles.
Where will the device you are developing be used?
Jepsen: We start at the ambulance. In the United States, by law, ambulances must always go to the nearest hospital. This is the death sentence for many stroke patients. If the nearest hospital can’t remove the clot, it quickly takes over two hours to drive to the nearest hospital, or even a third hospital. In the end someone may do the operation, but the patient will still not be able to walk or speak again.
But if you can treat someone in two hours, they have a 90 percent chance of healing without neural deficits. With our technology, the hospital could prepare, the doctors would be ready, the operating room would be ready, and things could start immediately. It usually takes twenty minutes just from the arrival of the patient to the start of the operation. We could shorten that significantly.
So does it need professionals to operate the technology?
Jepsen: We start with the ambulance, but in the end anyone who wants could have such a device at home. Why not? Why shouldn’t we connect our technology to a smartwatch? So far we’ve been scanning the forehead, but when we have more data there’s nothing wrong with seeing the signals on the watch the same way you can currently see heart attack signals. We may then also be able to predict a stroke, because a clot does not appear suddenly, the blood flow changes beforehand.
That means at some point the system will fit on a smartwatch?
Jepsen: A quarter of all strokes are recurrences, so you might want to have a device like that in your home, like you have a blood pressure cuff. So that one can say with certainty: am I having a stroke or just a headache? Should I go to bed or call an ambulance? Because when you go to sleep, you could lose 8 hours until you get the right care.
Strokes are more likely to occur in older people, very few of whom have a smartwatch – too complicated. How tech savvy does someone have to be to use the technology?
Jepsen: You just have to be able to read a message. The device tells you everything you need to know. Currently you only have to put on the visor for 77 seconds and you get the result. That’s our goal. We deliver that to the FDA. We want the alarm to be easy to view on a smartphone. We have the data, we have the patterns, and we can distinguish strokes from healthy data 100 percent of the time. That’s why we want to submit the application to the FDA this month. And then we have to keep testing.
Strokes, brain tumors: it sounds like you’re very flexible when it comes to the use of your technology.
Jepsen: It’s all the same technology: modulating light and sound. We could also use it to monitor blood flow between mother and baby in third trimester pregnancies. Or we could look into the liver to detect diseases there. However, we are currently focusing on the major medical needs: stroke, tumors, mental health.
How soon will you bring this device to market?
Jepsen: We are aiming for FDA clearance this year and could then start shipping next year.
Curing cancer and stroke is a vast field. Why did you choose such a difficult topic?
Jepsen: I had a brain tumor that started growing in my teens and wasn’t discovered until I was in my twenties. I was just about to give up my studies to wait at home for the end. I was confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t move my face, my body was covered with eczema, and eventually the worst came for me, I couldn’t do arithmetic anymore. That’s why I figured I didn’t deserve a Ph.D. in physics from an Ivy League university. But just as I was about to leave, a professor paid for an MRI scan and they found my brain tumor. That was in 1995. So I went back to university and graduated, mainly to get health insurance. Up until then I was doing all kinds of useless, wacky stuff that had no funding. Now I became a pioneer in the field of consumer electronics.
Okay, but how do you go from consumer electronics to medical sound waves?
Jepsen: I always wanted to do this, but there was no money for it. So I went to Google, went to Facebook, rose to the top ranks there. It was there that I noticed that the main focus was on new chip technologies – and that they could also be used for other things than smartphones and screens. Eventually I had enough money. And that’s when I thought, why don’t I take everything I know about consumer electronics and throw it at Health Care.
Let’s talk about the price: entertainment electronics are becoming more and more expensive, but they are not as expensive as an MRI. What is the price of your device?
Jepsen: Developments in the chip area are still extremely fast. We could now offer our technology for the price of a smartphone, while an MRI still costs millions – no wonder, considering that an MRI uses two magnets weighing tons. And precisely because it is so cheap, we can try out our technology in so many fields. To this end, we work with large pharmaceutical companies, among others, to find the best possible applications. Because we have the devices and we can produce many of them cheaply. So we prefer not to rely on one thing alone, but on as many as possible.
So now it’s all about the application, not the technology?
Jepsen: Exactly. We load the software parameters onto the device and thus adjust the waves. And then the patients get a treatment that is tailored to them. We are still at the beginning. But in some areas of application we are already testing people – for example in the case of strokes and depression.
You’ve raised it twice now: what can technology do for mental health?
Jepsen: We’re looking at the default mode network. First, we looked at cases of depression that have an overreaction of this network, that is, an overreaction of negative thoughts. You can see this on functional MRI because it shows the oxygen consumption of certain regions and where oxygen is needed, the neurons fire. With our technology, we can then target every region of the brain, to the point that overreacts and change the ion channels there with pinpoint accuracy, effectively taking over the region. And you can then see in the MRT how the regions calm down. At the same time, the patients also say that they feel better and less depressed.
Why do we need a new way to fight depression? Are medications not enough?
Jepsen: The method is very precise and there are far fewer side effects than with conventional medication. That’s because we only target specific regions of the brain, not just everything, like drugs. We are getting more and more inquiries in this sector, for example for studies on addictive behavior, anxiety and sleep disorders.
If you venture a guess: how many lives will you save with your technology?
Jepsen: That depends on the time frame. But it could be millions, hundreds of millions in the long term. Because it’s not just us who are working on it, all of our partners are too. It’s a big platform. And that makes us very fast.