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Could OvaScience's mitochondrial boost improve the success rate of older women going through IVF?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  October 10, 2011 10:50 AM

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The biotech start-up OvaScience was born back in January in the offices of Longwood Founders Fund, but hasn't said anything publicly about what it's up to. That'll change next week as Jonathan Tilly, a co-founder of the Boston company and chairman of its scientific advisory board, gives a talk at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, outlining the science behind OvaScience.

OvaScience has high hopes that it can turn laboratory insights licensed from Harvard Medical School and Mass General into a new treatment to improve the odds of IVF, or in vitro fertilization, for couples who can't conceive naturally. It uses stem cells from the woman's body to supply a fresh batch of mitochondria that can be injected into the egg, which the company believes can improve that egg's chances of developing into a viable embyro.

"Current IVF treatments don't work very well, and the main problem is egg quality," says Michelle Dipp, CEO of OvaScience and a co-founder of the Boston venture capital firm Longwood Founders Fund. The fertility treatments are only successful about 15 percent of the time when women are over age 40, Dipp says, and 45 percent of the time when women are under age 40. Dipp says about 3.2 million people in the U.S. seek treatment for infertility each year, but only about 60,000 go through the IVF process — partly because of the high failure rate, and partly because of the cost.

As a woman's eggs age, they have fewer functioning mitochondria inside; mitochondria, you'll remember from your high school biology, produce the ATP that cells use as their energy supply. OvaScience plans to replenish the mitochondria. First, in a laparoscopic procedure, the company will remove a small amount of ovarian tissue from the IVF patient. Then, the company will isolate the ovarian stem cells and extract the mitochondria from them. "Healthy eggs have anywhere from 100,000 to one million functioning mitochondria," says Scott Chappel, chief scientific office of OvaScience, and a veteran of Serono and Dyax. "We will inject 100,000 mitochondria into the egg at the same time as the sperm is injected," in a procedure known as ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which is already commonplace in the IVF world. OvaScience's hope is that its treatment will persuade doctors and patients to implant fewer embryos during an IVF "cycle" — resulting in fewer multiple births — by improving the success rate.

The company has about 10 employees, who are mainly overseeing the design of a clinical trial. It'll include about 40 patients at two fertility clinics in the Boston area. (The company wasn't willing to name the clinics yet.) "Our target population are women who have already failed at least two IVF attempts, and the explanation is poor oocyte quality," says Chappel.

Dipp notes that while OvaScience will have to comply with established practices for handling tissues and cells, OvaScience's treatment will not have to go through the same approval process as do new drugs or devices.

OvaScience's co-founders are Tilly, Dipp, Christoph Westphal, Rich Aldrich, and David Sinclair of Harvard. Sinclair, Dipp, Aldrich, and Westphal all worked together earlier at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which went public before being acquired by GlaxoSmithKline. OvaScience's initial financial backing of $6 million comes from Longwood Founders Fund and Bessemer Venture Partners.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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