A new treatment for depression

Depression: more than 300 million people are affected by it, and it's estimated that 15% of the adult population will experience it at some point in their lifetime. It can lead to people retreating from everyday life, and at its worst sometimes cause them to take their own lives. Yet, in modern medicine, to diagnose depression and recommend appropriate treatment doctors still rely on patients being honest and upfront about their condition. In fact, clinicians often rely on trial and error to find the best way to treat their patients. But in Amsterdam, one startup is working on a revolutionary new method that could help diagnose and treat patients more efficiently than ever. That startup is 3EGA, and its new methodology for identifying and helping to treat depression is truly ground-breaking, using a quick, non-invasive test that can be carried out using equipment found in most hospitals around the world.

It all starts in the brain. By attaching electrodes to the patient’s head and using an ectroencephalogram – or an EEG – to record electrical patterns in the brain, 3EGA says it can determine whether a patient is suffering from depression; further tests are then used to examine whether medication is working.

Milena Cukic

“When the depression is recurrent, people can suffer from it for the rest of their life,” 3EGA’s founder and CEO Milena Cukic explains. “People who are taking care of people with depression – psychiatrists or clinical-psychologists – they try whatever they can, but the diagnosis is made from the conversation. They rely on self-report from the patient. We help therapists make evidence-based decisions in medication management for patients dealing with recurrent depression. And by analysing EEG signals recorded in depressed patients and comparing these to those of healthy people, we can find out whether patients are in the process of getting better or not. This analysis also helps the therapist decide how to manage medication for the individual patient.”

Bridging the gap between scientific fields 

Cukic, who comes from a family of professors and psychologists, became fascinated with biomedical electronics after witnessing her father working in the field. She studied electro-engineering at the University of Belgrade in her native Serbia, then spent time making prostheses for people with spinal cord injuries. She then returned to the university to study general physiology and biophysics so she could bridge the gap between the two scientific fields. But it was when Cukic was researching how to help treat movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease she started to see how brains were affected and changed by conditions like Parkinson’s and depression. “I figured out that those methodologies that seem to help, especially to people that are not reacting well to medication, is that the depression has changed the complexity of the brain, of those electrical signals we are testing,” she explains. “I just added the dots.”

Taking what she had learned, around three years ago Cukic and her team – based in Serbia and other scientific centres around the world - started measuring the electrical signals in the brain of people suffering from depression, leading to the results which helped form 3EGA’s innovative methodology. Using the relatively cheap EEG scan – as opposed to say, expensive MRI scans – 3EGA’s system is quick, non-invasive and affordable. “The signal is easy to record, but no one is using it in the way that we are proposing now,” Cukic adds. Frustrated by the long amount of time it can take to get scientific research translated into real-life application, she started to think about launching a company to help get her idea off the ground. “Whenever you do something innovative you have to try and try until you meet someone who understands what you are doing, especially if you live in a foreign country. I was lucky enough to meet some of those people,” she says.

Invaluable support from IN Amsterdam

In 2015 had Cukic moved to Amsterdam to be with her husband Slavoljub, who had been living in Amsterdam since 2010 working for TomTom in the city centre (and is also 3EGA's CTO). After moving to the city Cukic visited IN Amsterdam for advice on how she could get support in turning her scientific research into tangible results and met representatives from both IN Amsterdam and amsterdam inbusiness (aib). IN Amsterdam and aib connected Cukic with representatives from the Amsterdam Health and Technology Institute, and in turn the institute introduced her to healthtech venture builder NLC and the HealthInc programme, an accelerator for early-stage HealthTech startups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs that connects them to healthcare and business professionals, allowing them to build a support base for their innovations and bring viable products and services into the market. After encouragement and advice from amsterdam inbusiness Cukic also decided to officially start her new business, 3EGA. “I’m very happy with the service IN Amsterdam and amsterdam inbusiness provided,” Cukic explains, “IN Amsterdam’s openness for people programme and aib’s access to networks was a real help. And being part of HealthInc was a chance to find investment and grow 3EGA.”

“The HealthInc programme taught me how to run a business,” Cukic explains. “If you’re coming from a research background, you need to learn about the mechanisms of business in my sector. Healthinc helped me do that. They were partnering with Startupbootcamp, who provided lectures and training, and they also organised events where we could meet people who could help us grow our businesses and help improve our innovations.” HealthInc is majority-funded by the City of Amsterdam, and aims to keep the city at the forefront of innovations in life sciences and medicines, investing in talent in Amsterdam and nurturing the entrepreneurs of the future. “Healthinc taught me what the problems would be in growing my business and idea and how to overcome them,” Cukic adds. “They are very supportive and very kind people and they keep in touch with me as they want me to succeed.”

Looking to the future

After learning how to run a business Cukic’s next step is to conduct more research and develop more markers for bipolar and Parkinson’s disease which can be used for early prevention. She’s also focusing on business development, hoping that in a few months’ time 3EGA will secure IP protection and CE marking for its depression-treating methodology, meaning that it’s approved by the relevant European health, safety and environmental protection legislation, and so can be used legally in clinical practice. Though Cukic admits it could be ‘years’ before 3EGA’s technology is common practice for treating patients with depression, she’s sanguine about the future, and determined to make her dreams a reality. “This is just the beginning,” she says. “I have been working on depression since 2013, and I am working with my colleagues around the world, combining our expertise to help solve important problems and make everyday clinicians life easier. I’m very thankful for the City of Amsterdam giving me this opportunity. I think we will get there, it simply takes time.”

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