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Joining an interdisciplinary neuroscience company with a common goal to ease human suffering

Riya Biswas

Earlier in December, I had the privilege of joining an innovative Kiwi neuroscience business, Exsurgo, as Postdoctoral Research Assistant.

This marks an exciting change in direction for my career, with the same focus on improving the health of many people around the world – however this time exploring how EEG neurofeedback, backed by big data, can be used as a non-invasive therapy for chronic pain sufferers.

Exsurgo’s work is an exciting fusion of science, technology and big data; engineering a prototype wearable headset ‘Axon’, that works by monitoring brain activity and using that data to help the patient ‘retrain’ how their brain responds to nerve signals from the body.

The headset passively reads the bio-electrical activity associated with pain in the participant’s brain and sends this data wirelessly to a mobile device and fed back to the person in real-time. As more pain sufferers use Axon, the amount of data increases exponentially over time – providing more intelligence to clinical communities.

As part of my research assistant role, I’ll work closely alongside Exsurgo’s incredible Chief Science Officer, Christine Ozolins, to manage data and statistical requirements of our clinical research projects, including the largest EEG chronic pain clinical trial of its kind in the world, in partnership with AUT University and Waitematā District Health Board.

It feels like a natural progression moving from an academic focus into an industry role, while still working closely with AUT – where I spent several formative academic years as a Researcher working on gastrointestinal and lung cancer, and teaching postgraduate diploma students in biomedical and pharmacology laboratories.

I now find myself amongst an inspiring multidisciplinary team within Exsurgo and its partners – a group of engineers, medical scientists, data scientists, software engineers, R+D experts, clinicians, and physicians, all collaborating for a common goal that really resonates with me – using science and technology to improve people’s health and ultimately ease human pain and suffering.

It’s exciting to see my ‘purpose’ coming to life through this career change. With my study and academic background in cancer research – the commonalities with Exsurgo’s own company mission show incredible parallels by chasing medical breakthroughs.

At the beginning of this year, I first heard about Exsurgo’s chronic pain clinical trial through the media. When I met Exsurgo’s CEO Richard Little I learnt that Richard and I share a similar ‘why’ that’s at the core of our career ambitions. Richard, an experienced engineer, set about exploring medical engineering almost two decades ago, when his mother had a stroke and his best friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He went about designing Rex – a robotic exoskeleton that gave people who had lost the use of some or all function of their legs the ability to walk again.

Similarly, when my best friend’s mother – who was like my own mum – was diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and I witnessed her undergo the intensity of chemotherapy and radiation, it inspired me to pursue a study career in biomedical areas to find alternative solutions.

It may be a pipe dream – but I also love the idea of exploring how Exsurgo’s specialist knowledge in EEG could be transferred to achieve another major health breakthrough – solving for early screening of brain tumours to aid early detection and better recovery rates. The power of fusing science and technology together is huge – and I’m excited to see where my new path at one of New Zealand’s leading neuroscience companies could take this kind of ‘big picture’ thinking.

In the meantime, I’ll lap up the mentorship of the amazing female scientist powerhouse that is Christine. On a personal note, I take great inspiration from female science leaders – including Jennifer Doudna, who in 2020 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her ground-breaking work on CRISPR gene editing technology. I highly recommend her biography, The Code Breaker, to fellow female scientists seeking inspiration from pioneers like Doudna.

Today, I’m thrilled to apply my analytical experience to support Exsurgo’s chronic pain clinical trial. Stay tuned for trial results expected in the second half of 2022 – we’re eagerly anticipating the study’s conclusion so Exsurgo can roll out its Axon devices to millions of chronic pain sufferers across the world.

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