Prize Honors Innovations to Improve Cancer Patient Experience

Victoria Stern, MA


October 21, 2016

On October 11, Diane Jooris, CEO and co-founder of the health tech start-up Oncomfort, won the first annual C3 Prize for her work developing a virtual reality system to manage cancer patients' stress and anxiety during treatment.

The C3 Prize, developed and launched in April by pharmaceutical company Astellas Oncology, aims to inspire nonpharmacologic innovations, such as Jooris's, that can improve cancer care and patient quality of life.

"We [at Astellas] have therapeutics, but we wanted to explore a more holistic approach to cancer care to address all aspects of the patient experience," said Mark Reisenauer, senior vice president of oncology sales and marketing at Astellas.

Reisenauer, whose father recently received treatment for neck cancer, witnessed firsthand the complex journey of a cancer patient. "After 20 years in the business, I thought I had a good handle on patients' needs, but when you have to live it, you see that the reality is much harder, whether it's navigating drug therapy, drug side effects, family, or the healthcare system."

In August, after combing through more than 100 submissions for the C3 Prize, Reisenauer and colleagues at Astellas whittled the entries down to five finalists, who presented their ideas to a panel of judges at the Stanford Medicine X conference in September. Finally, Astellas announced the three winners at the 2016 European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) Congress, held October 7-11 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Jooris, the grand prize winner, received a $50,000 grant, along with a 1-year membership to the healthcare technology incubator MATTER. Both first-prize winners took home $25,000 each and a year-long membership to MATTER—Mark Harrison for his work creating a free online system, PROSTMATE™, to help men with prostate cancer, especially those in remote areas of Australia, connect with oncology specialists and receive individualized, time-sensitive care; and Larry Pederson for developing a portable light therapy device called The Litebook® to reduce the fatigue and depression that cancer patients often face during treatment.

Jooris's idea received the top prize because the judges saw its potential to meaningfully and immediately address a universal issue for cancer patients—anxiety. Jooris, previously a clinical hypnosis specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who helped patients destress before surgery, realized that she could reach more people using virtual reality–based therapies. She teamed up with co-founder and software engineer Joowon Kim to create Oncomfort, an immersive experience that uses psychological strategies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy to help patients relax during treatment. Patients sport a Samsung Gear VR headset and can engage in various scenarios. Children, for instance, can play KIMO, a game that teaches them about cancer and chemotherapy and then allows them to travel through blood vessels and shoot "chemo juice" at cancer cells. Adults have different options. They can delve underwater in the AQUA module, for example, where they learn relaxation and mind-body techniques.

Currently, clinical trials to validate the technology are underway at major cancer centers around the world, and early, unpublished data from a trial of breast cancer patients have shown promise; women who used Oncomfort before surgery reported less postoperative anxiety and pain compared with their peers.

Reisenauer believes that this type of anxiety-reducing experience could have helped his father, who faced crippling anxiety and claustrophobia during his chemotherapy sessions. "It got so bad that he almost walked away from treatment," Reisenauer recalled.

Although the technology now centers on helping breast and pediatric cancer patients, Jooris's goal is to expand the scope of care to many other conditions as well as to family members, caregivers, surgeons, and medical teams who face high rates of stress and burnout. "Being able to help cancer patients, as well as caregivers, parents, and medical professionals, relieve their anxiety would be the dream," said Jooris.

Reisenauer is optimistic that the ideas emerging from C3 this year and in years to come will enhance patients' quality—not just quantity—of life. "We don't want patients with cancer to have to make a trade-off between quantity and quality of life; we want them to have both," he said.


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