OvaScience Uses Stem Cells to Revive Fertility
Boston-based OvaScience is emerging from stealth mode with a technology designed to improve in vitro fertilization by rejuvenating tired eggs. Yesterday the company unveiled its technique, which is based on technology it licensed from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. OvaScience co-founder Jonathan Tilly—director of the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology at MGH—will talk in detail about the company’s science on October 19 at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine annual meeting in Orlando, FL.
OvaScience’s startup team has plenty of experience in the field of rejuvenation. The company’s CEO and co-founder is Michelle Dipp, previously vice president of corporate development at Sirtris—which was famously developing compounds based on the anti-aging supplement resveratrol before it was acquired for $720 million by GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) in 2008. OvaScience co-founder Christoph Westphal was Sirtris’s founder and CEO. Dipp and Westphal are now partners at Longwood Founders Fund, which took part in OvaScience’s $6 million Series A round in July. Bessemer Venture Partners also participated in that round.
What’s more, one of the two key technologies behind OvaScience’s product was developed by none other than David Sinclair, the Harvard scientist who discovered resveratrol’s role in promoting longevity. The compounds that OvaScience licensed from Sinclair’s lab activate mitochondria—tiny power plants in cells that provide the energy for them to divide and grow.
The crux of OvaScience’s technique comes from MGH’s Tilly, who in 2004 discovered a type of stem cell in the ovary that matures into eggs. OvaScience’s approach involves isolating these egg stem cells from the patient, taking mitochondria from those cells, and then injecting the mitochondria into her eggs during a type of in vitro fertilization, in which sperm from the father is also injected. “IVF is magic if you have great eggs,” says Dipp. “But as we get older, egg quality declines. Our technique is aimed at increasing the quality of the eggs.”
The idea of injecting mitochondria into eggs has been tried before, Dipp says. But those techniques relied on donor eggs, which had different mitochondrial DNA from that of the mother. It never caught on because it’s not appropriate to use another person’s DNA, Dipp says. The key to OvaScience’s approach, she says, is that the rejuvenating mitochondria comes from the same person who’s donating the egg—the mother, in essence, is providing the material necessary to revive her own fertility.
OvaScience is preparing to start a pivotal trial in 2012. Dipp says the company will recruit 40 patients between the ages of 35 and 42 who have failed IVF one or two times. They will be treated at one of two Massachusetts IVF centers, Dipp says. The trial will go on for 12 to 18 months, with one of the primary goals being “healthy live births,” she says.
OvaScience estimates that the total market for IVF is around $10 billion a year—a market that has grown 60 percent in the last 10 years, Dipp says. That growth has come in spite of IVF’s iffy prognosis: for 55 percent of women under age 40 IVF will ultimately fail. That failure rate skyrockets to 85 percent in women over 40.
OvaScience hasn’t yet estimated what the market potential of its product will be. A lot will depend on how OvaScience’s service is ultimately marketed, says Stephen Kraus, a partner at Bessemer Ventures in Cambridge, MA. “There are potentially several ways we could commercialize this,” including pitching it directly to fertility specialists, he says. “We are currently working with our advisors on the go-to-market strategy.”
Dipp adds that if the technique proves effective, OvaScience may find demand for it from a wide range of women. “There are all kinds of situations where a younger woman has older ovaries,” she says, perhaps because of cancer treatments or medical conditions that cause them to lose their fertility. “There’s definitely the possibility of expanding to markets where we try this technique the first time around.”