Daisy Robinton, Ph.D., a molecular biologist from Harvard University, wants to help extend women's life spans by focusing on ovarian health, a part of women's health that has received too little attention and investment when it comes to research.
Age-related decline in ovarian function leads to adverse health outcomes in women across the board. Changes in women's bodies with the decline in ovarian function and in the years around menopause can raise the risk for certain health problems such as heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis.
"From a longevity perspective, there's a huge unmet need and also a huge field of opportunity," Robinton told Fierce Healthcare. "We are following the thesis of, 'If we can improve ovarian function and extend ovarian health, can we also improve the healthspan of women?'"
Robinton co-founded Oviva Therapeutics with scientists Patricia Donahoe, Ph.D. and David Pépin, Ph.D., to extend longevity through developing novel therapeutics that target ovarian function.
"We're aiming to fundamentally shift what's available for women by providing therapeutics that can prevent the decline of ovarian function and circumvent all of the negative things that occur as a result," she said.
Oviva, a majority-owned pipeline company of Cambrian Biopharma, nabbed $11.5 million in seed funding and announced an in-licensing agreement with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) of a family of patents to work toward bringing its first program from preclinical studies to patients.
Oviva Therapeutics addresses the vast unmet need in women's health by expanding funding, research and clinical development of treatments addressing female physiology, beginning with a focus on ovarian aging.
Robinton joined Cambrian BioPharma as a scientist in residence in 2020 to build the foundation for Oviva. She was motivated to research ovarian health based on her own personal experiences and concerns about the lack of attention to women's health.
"I was also investigating my own fertility and realized with horror how little I knew about reproductive biology and just the basic aspects of women's health, despite being a Ph.D. biologist. So just recognizing the state of women's health and the real lack of resources, information and funding and research that's been done to date in that area," said Robinton, who leads Oviva as CEO.
Robinton identified a gap in the field of longevity with an opportunity to improve women's health. Her intervention focuses on extending ovarian function, prompted by the fact that ovaries are the first organ to decline with age.
She notes that biomedical research had been conducted primarily in male animals until 2016, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated both sexes be included in all studies of grant recipients.
It wasn’t until 1991 that inclusion of both sexes was required in clinical trials in the U.S. Because of this, women have poorer outcomes than men across every facet of the U.S. healthcare system. Between 1997 and 2000, eight of the 10 drugs withdrawn from the U.S. market elicited greater adverse events in women than in men.
There's also a funding problem, the company contends.
Only 15% of the 2018 NIH budget, the largest public funding body for health in the U.S., was allocated to all of women’s health. This includes research toward conditions that are in utero, pre-pubertal, fertility-related and pre- and post-menopausal. Only $43 million, less than 1% of that same budget, was dedicated to reproductive aging.
"Our healthcare system overlooks women's health at all levels, most notably menopause," Robinton said. "Menopause will happen to half the world's population, triggering a number of negative health conditions - including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, loss of bone density, immune dysfunction, declines in neurocognitive health, and a host of other maladies. We're uncovering novel insights into ovarian physiology to develop first-in-class therapeutics that improve ovarian function and prevent aging of the ovary. With this we hope to restore years of health and agency to women all over the world."
She is working alongside Donahoe, director of the pediatric surgical research laboratories and chief emerita of pediatric surgical services at MGH and a tenured professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and Pépin, associate molecular biologist at MGH and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
Donahoe was among those who pioneered the earliest research on anti-müllerian hormone (AMH), a hormone responsible for sexual differentiation in the male, and along with Pépin defined the function of the AMH gene in the ovary. Most other natural hormones studied for as long as AMH have found clinical applications.
The patents that Oviva has licensed were developed at MGH by Donahoe and Pépin and include analogs of AMH, which Oviva aims to develop for therapeutic use in women, according to the company.
"There could not be a better time to take AMH from pre-clinical studies to the clinic for testing in women," Donahoe said in a statement. "Preserving or prolonging ovarian function will have a broad impact on the reproductive health of women at a time when reproductive rights are currently under siege."
"This collaboration with MGH will be one of the first of its kind to develop, test and bring to market new therapeutics specifically designed to improve women's healthspan through improving ovarian health," said Cambrian CEO James Peyer, Ph.D.
Oviva is developing an agent targeting folliculogenesis, the process wherein follicles within the ovary—each housing a single egg—mature to ultimately ovulate. This process eventually leads to the depletion of most of a woman's eggs and the subsequent triggering of menopause.
"If we can control folliculogenesis by moderating the rate at which immature follicles are recruited for maturation, we may be able to influence one of the fundamental causal factors of ovarian aging," said Robinton.
"By limiting folliculogenesis, Oviva aims to prevent the depletion of the ovarian reserve and in doing so extending ovarian function and female health span," she said.