Engineering Better Women’s Health
Meet startup team Reia Health
Engineering Better Women’s Health
A Dartmouth doctor and team of Thayer Engineers are leading the way to better treatment for a common health condition that isn’t often discussed.
For 24 years, Dr. Paul Hanissian, a urogynecologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, has helped women deal with the intimate but common problem of pelvis organ prolapse.
“It’s a vastly under-recognized and talked about problem because it is so personal and women generally keep it to themselves,” says Paul, who also teaches at the Geisel School of Medicine.
Although half of women over 50 have some degree of prolapse and 1 in 8 women will need surgery for the condition at some point in their lives, there have been few advancements in the non-surgical treatment options. The condition can be alleviated through surgery or the insertion of a pessary, a device that is placed in the vagina to support the pelvic floor.
“Throughout my career I’ve been very dissatisfied by the pessaries available on the market to treat my patients,” Paul, 54, says. The existing options are difficult and sometimes painful to insert and remove. Because of this women use them for extended periods of time rather than intermittently, which can lead to medical complications and lifestyle drawbacks, since women are generally not able to have intercourse with a pessary placed.
Paul knew there had to be a better way. In 2015 he connected with Ari Sopher, Meegan Daigler and Kaitlin Maier, undergraduate students at the Thayer School of Engineering who were doing an independent study on biomechanics of the female pelvis.
“Once we learned about prolapse and pessaries we all decided that the available treatment options leave a lot to be desired and we wanted to try to improve upon them,” says Kaitlin, 26.
The result was Reia, a company that has designed a more user-friendly pessary. Last year, the company placed second at the 2018 Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum. The prize money and support from the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship helped the Reia team advance the production of their prototype.
“Our goal was to try to improve women’s independence in their healthcare,” Kaitlin says. The Reia pessary is collapsable, making it easy for women to insert and remove at home. This helps improve overall quality of care for women with prolapse.
“If they use our device and they can take it in and out very easily, then they don’t have to use it when not necessary,” Paul explains. “They can avoid the complications and improve their lifestyle.”
In 2018 Reia received a $150,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. That enabled Kaitlin, Ari and Meegan to work on the device full-time. Throughout many meetings with patients and providers the team worked to refine their design to address a myriad of issues that current pessary designs present. Today, they have nearly finalized a prototype.
“It is still under development, but the changes between iterations are getting smaller and smaller,” Kaitlin says.
Throughout the growth of Reia, the Dartmouth community and the Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship have been instrumental, Paul and Kaitlin say. To assist with the federal grants, Magnuson Center Director Jamie Coughlin wrote letters that were “extremely helpful in showing support for the potential commercialization of our company, which is a huge factor in the grant,” Kaitlin says.
In addition, The Magnuson Center has provided a physical space for the Reia team to gather, since Paul works in Lebanon, Ari in Boston, and Meeghan and Kaitlin in Brooklyn.
“A lot of strategic planning for our company has taken place at the Magnuson Center and it has been a really nice place for us to get together and work,” Paul says.
The Reia team recently finished applying for an additional $2 million in funding from the NIH. The grant would allow them to finalize the prototype, conduct two clinical trials at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and begin clearing regulatory hurdles. If all goes as planned they expect their device to be available to patients in 2021.
“We’re still a few years away, but we are encouraged that we are on the right track,” Paul says.
After waiting decades for a better treatment option for his patients, Paul is looking forward to the day when the Reia pessary is available to everyone.
“It’s something I’m really excited about,” he says. “I think this is going to be a disruptive development in the pessary market.”