After decades of neglect, women’s health is attracting increasing interest in the biotech industry. The U.S. startup Oviva Therapeutics aims to develop hormonal therapies that can delay menopause as part of the aging process.
Many biotech companies fighting aging are attracting massive cash infusions. One well-known example is Altos Labs, which launched in Silicon Valley in January 2022 with a staggering $3 billion investment.
Anti-aging biotech companies are focused on a wide variety of biological mechanisms believed to be responsible for the aging process, known as the hallmarks of aging. However, one aspect of aging in women — menopause — has been less studied in the context of longevity research.
“The ovaries age at an accelerated rate relative to the rest of the body,” said Daisy Robinton, co-founder and CEO of the U.S. firm Oviva Therapeutics. “They’re one of the first organs to fail.”
Robinton has her roots as a molecular biologist at Harvard University in the U.S. In 2020, Robinton became a Scientist in Residence at Cambrian BioPharma, a firm with an in-house drug pipeline and a portfolio of majority-held biotechs developing anti-aging treatments. There, she started building Oviva Therapeutics with the aim of developing hormone therapies to delay menopause. To fund the research, Oviva closed a $11.5 million seed round in May 2022.
According to Robinton, the idea for founding Oviva happened serendipitously when she was still in academia. “I was doing research for an article that I was writing on the future of fertility while I was also beginning a personal journey understanding my own fertility and reproductive physiology,” she explained. “What I realized during that time was that there’s this egregious oversight that exists around female physiology in both biomedical research, but also clinical development.”
During that time, Robinton had a coffee with James Peyer, CEO of Cambrian BioPharma, on this topic.
“Sitting down with James and hearing about his longevity-focused company, I thought: ‘how has no-one even mentioned the ovaries in the context of longevity? It’s such an obvious canary in the coal mine to pursue,’” she said. The result was the formation of Oviva as one of Cambrian’s pipeline companies.
Each woman is usually born with around 1 million eggs in their ovaries, and this declines to around 300,000 at puberty. With each menstrual cycle, roughly a thousand eggs are lost until the reserve is depleted and the ovaries shut down. This leads to menopause, which can result in multiple health problems as the hormonal balance shifts.
“This decline in ovarian health leads to a decline in the systemic health of the person,” said Robinton. “Once a woman enters menopause, the aging in the rest of their body actually accelerates by roughly 6%.” Additionally, women that enter menopause before their fifties tend to have a shorter lifespan than those who enter menopause later.
To delay menopause in aging, Oviva has licensed patents developed at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) by Patricia Donahoe, director of the pediatric surgical research laboratories and chief emerita of pediatric surgical services, and David Pépin, associate molecular biologist at MGH. These patents include hormone therapies that are based on a hormone called Anti-Müllerian Hormone (AMH).
AMH has historically been used as a marker for how many eggs a woman has available in her ovaries. The hormone typically prevents egg cells from being released and fluctuates naturally during ovulation. With a treatment based on AMH in preclinical development, Oviva aims to reduce the number of egg cells that are lost during each menstrual cycle, and maintain the ovarian reserve for longer.
The AMH approach contrasts with current hormone therapies for menopause as it could delay the process, rather than just tackling the symptoms. Oviva’s AMH therapies also differ from birth control pills because they are designed to act earlier in the chain of biological events leading to the release of an egg cell from the ovaries. With birth control pills, for example, Robinton explained that “you’re not getting the ovulation event, so you’re not getting pregnant, but you’re still depleting the ovarian reserve. There is yet to be any sort of therapeutic that acts at that early intervention point that would actually influence the ovarian reserve itself.”
By focusing on menopause in aging, Oviva aims to bring more awareness to women’s health, which has been neglected for decades in biomedical research. For example, it wasn’t until 1991 that the U.S. National Institutes of Health required the inclusion of both sexes in clinical trials for relevant indications. Meanwhile, preclinical research is often skewed toward male animals to keep the data less variable. This has led to a general lack of detailed data about female physiology in addition to drugs that are poorly suited to female patients.
“This willful neglect is not good for science,” said Robinton. “It’s not good for patients and it’s not good for business.”
This lack of information is paralleled in the aging field in general. While many companies are raising big cash to chase the hallmarks of aging, there are still many unknowns about what happens in the aging process.
“Part of the technical challenge for both of these fields is really defining the biomarkers that can faithfully represent what’s happening in the body,” said Robinton.
Nonetheless, there are now more startups forming to investigate the biology of menopause in aging. One New York company, Celmatix, has assembled a vast trove of data on ovarian health and is developing a treatment to protect the ovaries from damage during chemotherapy. Another New York resident called Gameto was set up by a team including serial entrepreneur George Church to deploy cell reprogramming in the mission to slow menopause in aging.
“Having multiple players in this space will bring us to our broader mission of improving women’s health and well-being more rapidly,” commented Robinton.
“There will only be more interest — more investment, more companies popping up, etc. — as the rest of the world catches on that there are many serious opportunities here to fundamentally change the state of healthcare for women.”