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Biotechnology and health

Turmoil at Troubled Fertility Company Ovascience

A pioneering biotech scales back plans to rejuvenate women’s eggs for IVF.
December 29, 2016

Ovascience, a company that promised to revolutionize fertility by allowing women to succeed in IVF treatments at older ages, is pulling back on its lead product and replacing its corporate leadership for the second time this year.

The struggling company was the subject of a feature story in MIT Technology Review that explored doubts surrounding its fertility technology, which it began marketing overseas in 2014 despite slim evidence it helped patients conceive.

In a statement last week, the company said its CEO, Harald Stock, had resigned and would be replaced by cofounder Michelle Dipp as interim chief executive.

A spokesperson, Jennifer Viera, said Dipp was unavailable for an interview. Ovascience also said its chief operating officer would leave the company and that it would reduce its workforce by 30 percent.

Ovascience was founded six years ago around the dogma-challenging claim by a scientist now at Boston University that he had discovered “egg precursor” cells in human ovaries that could generate new, young eggs for older women, potentially extending reproductive years.  

Thanks to that revolutionary possibility, Ovascience was once valued by Wall Street at $1.8 billion. But by Thursday, following a long decline in its share price, the company’s stock market valuation had fallen to just $47 million.

Ovascience’s lead product, called Augment, involves harvesting energy-making structures called mitochondria from the precursor cells. These are then injected along with sperm into the eggs of a woman undergoing IVF treatment with an eye toward improving the chance of a pregnancy.

With limited data supporting its ability to improve IVF success rates, Augment was never offered in the U.S., but has been available in 10 clinics in Japan, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.

Uptake for the service has been slow. Ovascience, which once projected it would perform 1,000 Augment treatments per year, carried out only 91 in the first nine months of this year, according to the company, generating just $532,000 in revenue.

As part of what it termed a “business update,” the company said it would slow efforts to market Augment and also put on hold further clinical trials of the technique.

Viera said Ovascience was still “exploring a potential U.S. market entry strategy with the FDA” but didn’t provide details. 

Ovascience said it would continue R&D on its original, more radical, idea of growing new eggs for older women from the immature cells it terms egg precursors. Whether such egg stem cells really exist remains a matter of scientific debate.

Michelle Dipp

Investors appear to be betting that the R&D will not pay off and that further efforts by the company will be wasted. The company’s current value is less than half the $130 million in cash it had in its bank accounts as of September.

Others remain hopeful a turnaround is possible because of Ovascience’s unique profile. Very few biotech companies have attempted to create innovations in fertility medicine.

“It’d be a mistake to count them out,” says Jake Anderson-Bialis, a venture capitalist who cofounded the patient community FertilityIQ. “I’d probably invest the money to go find other compelling technologies that are still locked up within the universities.”

Anderson-Bialis says he currently owns about $500 worth of Ovascience shares, which he originally paid $10,000 to buy.

As of September, Ovascience had spent $228 million on research and development, operations, and other expenses during its six years of operation.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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