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NewCo News: OvaScience Aims to Reshape IVF Using Egg Precursor Cells

bwt040612 OvaScience

By Marie Powers
Staff Writer

Privately held OvaScience has burst onto the infertility scene in a big way, raising $43 million since its founding in 2011, including a $37 million Series B round that closed this week.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company hopes to improve, transform and perhaps replace the in vitro fertilization (IVF) market by using fresh mitochondria isolated from a woman's own egg precursor cells to rejuvenate a mature egg during IVF and increase the chances of a successful pregnancy.

IVF has become the treatment of choice as women push the boundaries of fertility. In conventional IVF, women are injected with hormones that force immature eggs in the ovary to mature. Those eggs are removed transvaginally, placed in a dish and injected with sperm through a microneedle. When an egg is fertilized successfully, it begins to divide. After three to five days, the embryo is transferred back into the woman.

Although IVF has a success rate of 45 percent – with the outcome defined as a healthy live birth – for women younger than 35, the rate drops to less than 15 percent once women reach their 40s, even after multiple IVF attempts, according to Michelle Dipp, OvaScience's co-founder and CEO. The reason is not so much the age of the woman as the age and viability of her eggs. "The age of the egg is an indication of its energy level," Dipp said.

Consequently, some older women have opted for donor eggs from younger women, boosting IVF success rates for these procedures up to 65 percent. When fertility scientists explored the reasons for that higher success rate, they concluded that mitochondria – which produce most of the cell's supply of energy through adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – were responsible for the healthier eggs.

"We know that it's a tenet of aging, affecting all cells in the body, that with age you see a reduction in the amount and function of ATP, and eggs are no different," Dipp told BioWorld Today.

In the meantime, Jonathan Tilly, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered egg precursor cells in the ovaries of adult mice that are capable of generating new eggs – a finding he reported in 2004 in Nature. Subsequent research confirmed those precursor cells also exist in humans and have the ability to mature into fresh, young eggs that can be harvested through an ovarian biopsy, according to Dipp.

As partners at Boston's Longwood Fund, Dipp and OvaScience co-founder Christoph Westphal had watched the growing popularity of IVF with interest. They were equally intrigued by Tilly's stem cell-related technology, given that Longwood also launched Verastem Inc., where Westphal still serves as chairman and CEO.

Tilly's technology received a patent in 2011, which prompted the launch of OvaScience, where Tilly serves as co-founder, co-chairman of the board and a member of the scientific advisory board.

OvaScience's first product, AUGMENT (Autologous Germline Mitochondrial Energy Transfer), will take the mitochondria from a woman's egg precursor cells and inject them into a mature egg during IVF at the same time sperm is injected. The company plans to begin a clinical study this year at two sites in Boston, targeting women ages 35 to 42 who have failed IVF twice. The goal is to launch AUGMENT once the trial is completed at the end of 2013.

A second program, still in preclinical development, will seek to develop egg precursor cells into healthy, viable eggs – a process that has been demonstrated in mice, according to Dipp. Success could help not only women seeking to overcome infertility but also those who develop breast cancer and cannot freeze their eggs because they can't be subjected to the required hormone stimulation.

"Our vision for the company is to create new fertility treatment options for women," Dipp said.

Because U.S. IVF typically involves the fertilization of multiple eggs, higher success rates using the AUGMENT approach could lead to the transfer of fewer embryos, resulting in a lower incidence of multiple births and fewer complications during those pregnancies, Dipp pointed out.

"Eventually, maybe you could imagine replacing IVF with these fresh, new, healthy eggs," Dipp said. "Why would you stimulate to get the older eggs when you can get a fresh, healthy, young egg?"

OvaScience's approach in a field with a large unmet medical need excited the Series B investors, she added. The round was led by General Catalyst, with existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Longwood Fund joined by new investors BBT Capital Management Advisors, Cycad Group, Hunt BioVentures, RA Capital and an unnamed global institutional investor, among others.

The financing will see the company through 2014, giving it sufficient runway to complete the clinical study and launch AUGMENT. With 10 full-time employees and 10 consultants, OvaScience plans a modest expansion as the clinical study ramps up, perhaps adding five employees.

Long term, the company plans to grow its own marketing team.

"IVF is a very focused market, with 470 IVF clinics in the U.S.," Dipp said. "The top 20 clinics – those doing 1 ,000 or more cycles per year – are clustered on the East Coast and on the West Coast, so we can have a sales force of about six to 10 people and cover the whole country."

OvaScience also is banking egg precursor cells, which could produce a separate product line. And the company has developed compounds to stimulate the mitochondria that could also generate revenue.

"I'm not interested in trying to develop those as drugs that you would take orally, but it could be interesting to put them into culture media," Dipp said.