Breaking the Gender Barrier in Neuroscience with the Women's Brain Project
About Antonella Chadha Santuccione
Dr. Antonella Chadha Santuccione is a medical doctor with expertise in clinical pathology, neuroscience and psychiatric disorders. In 2016, she co-founded the non-profit organization, Women’s Brain Project (WBP), which addresses the influence of sex and gender on mental and brain diseases. She acts as the pro bono CEO of the organization. Antonella is also the Chief Medical Officer at Altoida, a healthcare technology company that is using digital cognitive assessments and precision technology to transform brain health at scale by unlocking faster research and better patient care. Antonella has decades of experience in preclinical research, patient treatment, clinical development, medical affairs and international regulatory framework for therapeutics.
Always focused on solving the puzzles related to Alzheimer’s (AD) and other psychiatric diseases, Antonella studied possible immunotherapies for AD in the laboratory of Roger Nitsch and Christoph Hock at the University of Zurich where aducanumab, the first amyloid treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, was discovered. She also worked with Swissmedic, Roche Diagnostic and Roche Pharma, Biogen, several European Universities, the EU Commission Directorate for Health and Food Safety, the OECD, the CEO in several Alzheimer's Disease organizations. While working for Swissmedic as a clinical reviewer, Antonella became interested in sex and gender differences in treatment response and safety profile of drugs as well as differences related to ethnicity, socioeconomic status and environmental exposure, which led to her career path and passion for precision medicine. This is when she founded the Women’s Brain Project along with three other colleagues including Dr. Maria Teresa Ferretti.
About Women’s Brain Project
The mission of the WBP is to drive scientific research in mental and brain health using the sex and gender lens. Since its launch in 2016, the WBP has led a campaign of awareness and collaboration, contributed to the growing body of research, and advocated for positive change across all levels of patient care. Antonella has earned several international prizes and awards for her research achievement, leadership and contribution to precision medicine and sustainability globally. She is keenly interested in removing bias when developing solutions for mental and neurological diseases to achieve precision medicines and with her team at WBP, she is funding the first worldwide sex and gender precision medicine research institute based in Switzerland.
Uncovering the Importance of Gender Diversity in Neuroscience
Men and women are different regarding disease risk, frequency, severity, symptomatology, diagnostic journey, and even response to treatment. Our mission is to transform the development of drug and medical treatments through sex and gender factors as a gateway to precision medicine and care. We do this by running research projects, consulting with industry partners, engaging with regulators, government, and non-governmental organisations and developing novel technologies to bring new treatment options to patients and caregivers.
WBP’s collaborative approach resides in scientific projects, scientific advice, data generation and scientific publication. We communicate findings across the pharmaceutical industry, and educate policy makers, regulators, academia, secondary schools and the lay public. We also have a flagship event, The International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health; this year will be its IV edition where world experts in brain and mental health unite to transform clinical development and digital health toward a more precise and sustainable approach.
Exploring the Gender Gap in Alzheimer's and Psychiatric Diseases: Understanding Differences in Women's Symptoms and Treatment
According to the World Health Organisation and the latest epidemiological studies, several brain and mental diseases disproportionately affect women. This is the case for Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, anti-NMDA receptors, encephalitis, migraine, multiple sclerosis, and many more conditions. Antonella is dedicated to Alzheimer’s research and is determined to solve the puzzle about this disease and the female factor. Alzheimer’s disease affects nearly 50 million people worldwide, two-thirds of whom are women. Moreover, 80 percent of caregivers (paid and unpaid) are women. The medical community has many theories as to why Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in women ranging from hormonal differences to specific gender risk factors such as caregiving, but the topic requires further study as several biological and social factors contribute to this phenomenon.
Recent studies also show that sex and gender differences in Alzheimer’s disease relate to the way the disease begins to manifest: women tend to have more depressive and/or delusional symptoms while men might be more aggressive and prone to alcohol consumption. In women, the disease progresses much faster over time and the cognitive decline is more severe. Recent evidence and WBP’s own research based on a patient survey also shows that women are diagnosed later than men because symptoms are often masked by their high verbal productivity or overlooked by general practitioners. Another difference is that women access specialized care later than men do, which could explain why elderly women are in poorer health. WBP is engaging with the entire ecosystem — scientists, policy makers, drug developers, regulators, funding agencies, health care professionals and, most importantly, patients — to better understand these differences. While a global approach is fundamental in neuroscience, WBP believes that sex and gender differences might hold the key for several disease mechanisms — and therefore, potential treatments.
Historically, clinical trials for Alzheimer’s have been limited and often lacked accurate or balanced gender representation, which has compounded the issue even more. Whether the trials call for human volunteers or animal studies, the overwhelming tendency has been to rely on male-only test groups. The Women’s Brain Project aims to rectify the imbalance through a social awareness campaign and strategic regulatory pressure to impact society on a large scale positively. To this end, we have learned much from the field of cardiovascular medicine, where a massive preventive campaign during the last few decades greatly reduced the number of cardiovascular events …. only in men. We aim to transform this dynamic in-patient care and treatment to include all patients.
Women’s Brain Project initiatives
We are working on a multitude of research projects such as the sex and gender Alzheimer’s disease patient journey- a project that addresses the economic aspect of gender in neurology. Other projects include collaborations such as one with Roche diagnostic and the Barcelona Beta Brain Research Center to study sex and gender differences in a preclinical population of AD. We have launched a migraine campaign as part of that initiative. Women’s medical concerns are often dismissed by loved ones and physicians alike, and one of the major neurological symptoms women experience are migraines. This eye-opening campaign speaks to how migraines impact women and how the implications of migraines are very real.
The complexity and the seriousness of migraines is not fully understood, which leads to stigmatisation and misdiagnosis. Women who suffer from migraines are characterized as “dramatic,” which is why we named the campaign ‘Not All in Her Head!’.
With 3x more women affected than men, the impact of migraine is much more severe in women, and affects several aspects of their lives. When left unresolved, their quality of life rapidly deteriorates, and affects them in their most productive years and leads to a significant economic impact on society.
We designed this campaign with a strong brand voice to encourage policymakers, patients, and healthcare professionals to adopt a multi stakeholder approach to improve the management of migraines (with better awareness, early diagnosis, and gender-specific research) to enable women to live healthier lives. We believe in a truly holistic approach to empower and support every woman experiencing migraines.
Charting the Course: Future Plans for WBP and Challenges in the Neuroscience Industry
In 2023, WBP is transforming into a foundation that will operate the first dedicated sex and gender precision medicine research institute in the world. With that, we are accelerating the study of sex and gender characteristics and leveraging them for better healthcare solutions. In fact, sex and gender are the gateway to precision medicine; the in-depth study conducted by the Institute of Sex and Gender in Diseases will usher innovation, insights and new methods that will be applicable in medicine at large to account for all other individual characteristics, including age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, genetics and so on. The knowledge generated is invaluable for public and private stakeholders to improve medical treatments and drug development.
One example of how sex and gender research can foster innovation comes from the field of Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis.
A major challenge the neurology community is facing are the limitations of neurological testing. Researchers and clinicians are hindered by traditional neurological testing that is slow, expensive, and incomplete. This impedes research and clinical trials, delays diagnosis, and constrains patient care. We are also finding that most current tests are ill-suited to detect early cognitive impairments, especially in women. There is a need for better diagnostic tools that are sex-specific.
In order to improve neurological assessments, clinicians and innovators encounter a central obstacle - the brain. The brain’s incredible complexity makes it challenging to monitor and treat. Traditional cognitive assessments focus mainly on memory but miss other crucial cognitive domains, such as speech, motor, and executive function. These are critical to brain health but often missing from brain testing.
This means that the most important aspect of our health – our brain – is also the hardest to research, diagnose, and treat. Many providers rely on their own observation to detect brain disease, but this is unreliable and subjective. And, there are a limited number of specialists in diseases of the brain. PET,MRI, and CSF tests are difficult to access, and diagnosis can take years.Clinical trials, on the other hand, are long and expensive. Despite decades of research and investment, few truly effective treatments have emerged.
We need greater precision at greater scale. We must equip clinicians and researchers with better tools to understand and manage the brain and translate its complexity into detailed, actionable information that guides care and improves lives.
Antonella’s work at both WBP and Altoida has a shared mission of moving the neuroscience community and industry toward precision therapy and technology that will transform brain health at scale by providing better care for patients. Together with WBP, we are exploring whether digital diagnostics such as Altoida can be the key for early detection of cognitive impairments in women. Altoida’s solutions go beyond memory to delineate the brain’s complexity. We harness AI to analyze more than 10 cognitive domains, detect subtle early symptoms, and pinpoint the unique digital signatures of disease.
Biggest achievements to date:
Antonella’s research over the last few decades has led to milestone peer-reviewed publications in the field of sex and gender medicine that address Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, COVID-19 infection, drug development, diagnostic and basic research. Additionally, Antonella is the author of several policy reports, TEDx and books, including “Sex and Gender Differences in Alzheimer’s disease”, “Sex and Gender Bias in Technology and Artificial Intelligence” and “Una Bambina Senza Testa,” which will become a TV series.
Antonella and WBP have won numerous awards:
- Since 2018, Antonella has been listed among the top 100 Women in Business in Switzerland. In 2019, she was elected Woman of the Year inSwitzerland by the Magazine “Women in Business”.
- In 2020, she received the World Sustainability Award for her involvement in advancing Precision Medicine. She also received the award “Premio Medicina Italia” for her contribution to the management of the pandemic.
- In 2021, she received the Italian National Prize for her contribution in establishing one of the first COVID-19 hospitals in Italy.
- In 2021, she was acknowledged among the “Women for Innovation” in Switzerland from the University of Basel and received the N.1 award from the Italian Embassy for her contribution to the cooperation between Switzerland and Italy.
- In 2022, she was awarded the "Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award" in Switzerland and the national Italian Prize “Rosone d’Oro”
Women's Brain Project website: https://www.womensbrainproject.com/
Altoida website: https://altoida.com/