In Silicon Valley, the buzz is all about eternal youth. Billionaires are pouring cash into immortality tech, the science of hacking old age and even death. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has invested millions in the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit that aims to make “90 the new 50 by 2030.” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a huge investor in Unity Biotechnology, a start-up developing therapeutics to flush out senescent cells (which are deteriorating but don’t die off when they should). In the pursuit of immortality, these west-coast wannabe-Dorian-Grays are trying every form of biohacking, from sleep tracking, fasting and meditation to implanting chips and hardware into the body. Even Apple and Google are showing interest in entering the sphere. But so far, as with so much in the biotech sector, the race for life eternal has been almost entirely male-dominated. Until, that is, the arrival of Dr. Daisy Robinton, a former Abercrombie & Fitch model with a Harvard PhD in human biology and translational medicine.
Dr. Robinton is intent on not only grabbing a slice of the potentially super-lucrative pie but also focusing exclusively on the field of female ageing, aiming to keep ovaries forever youthful so that within the next couple of decades women may be freed first from the tyranny of the “tick tock” biological clock and, later, menopause, with all its attendant side effects and longer-lasting health implications.
“Our research could be a hugely impactful avenue to improve women’s health and stop all these natural, but awful, things that happen to us,” says Robinton, 35, whose company, Oviva Therapeutics, two years ago received 12 million USD in seed funding, a vast sum that acknowledges – after centuries of virtually ignoring women’s health – that science and business are finally grasping the importance of understanding 51 per cent of the population’s biology and transforming its healthspan (the number of years of healthy life).
The idea for Oviva began when Robinton, whose work in the past has focused on stem cell genetics and the developmental roots of neurodegenerative diseases, had just broken up with her boyfriend of five years. She was 31, and like every woman of that age, monstered by headlines screaming about fertility falling off a cliff after 35, she knew if she wanted a family time probably wasn’t on her side.
“The headlines can terrify you,” Robinton says. “I wanted time to process the relationship I’d been in. But when you get to your thirties you start hearing horror stories about not leaving it too late to have children. My sister had issues getting pregnant with her first child and I’d seen how stressful that was.”
Robinton decided to consult a reproductive endocrinologist. “I needed some information, so I could make a decision that was right for me – whether it was to hurry up and find someone to have a baby with, or freeze my eggs, or decide if I didn’t want children, which was never really on the table for me.”
The doctor explained many things that Robinton did not know, including that in women’s late forties or fifties, when most still look and feel young, the ovaries start shuffling into old age much earlier than any other organ. Since ovaries also have a huge influence on women’s health and wellbeing, from that point female quality of life deteriorates dramatically, with cellular ageing accelerating by 6 per cent.
“I was horrified to find out how little I knew about my own biology. I thought, ‘If I have a PhD in this and I don’t know anything, then how else does anyone know anything?’”
Why, Robinton wondered, wasn’t anything available to slow down this process, with the potential consequence of not only keeping women healthier far longer, but also giving them a much wider fertility window and preventing the havoc menopause can wreak, with symptoms ranging from brain fog, sleeplessness, mood swings, sexual dysfunction and slowed metabolisms to its links to osteoporosis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
“All these bad things had been characterised as just what happens to women when they hit 50. We’ve always been told, ‘Oh, that’s totally normal.’”
In early 2020, Robinton formed Oviva to focus on research into delaying ovarian ageing. A week after she received the seed funding to begin the company’s research, she and her fitness coach partner learnt she was pregnant with her daughter, now almost one.
“It was interesting timing. It’s definitely hard to juggle motherhood with a career that feels like it’s taking off. But it feeds into the same narrative of being able to choose a life that is fulfilling and vibrant and not letting our inherent sex and gender differences keep us down.”
Each month women ovulate one egg but also lose thousands more – summoned from their finite supply allocated at birth. Eventually, millions of eggs are lost, until a threshold is reached so low it triggers menopause. Oviva is looking to develop an agent that can slow down or entirely stop folliculogenesis, the process whereby the follicles – sacs in the ovary that each contain one egg – mature.
In younger women, the anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) is produced by the ovaries to prevent additional eggs maturing during this process, effectively holding them in reserve. AMH levels in the blood are thought to reflect the size of the remaining egg supply, or “ovarian reserve”, and AMH levels have therefore become one of the most commonly used indicators in female fertility tests.
Natural levels typically peak around the age of 25, gradually declining until, after menopause, they fall to almost undetectable levels.
Robinton is working with a Massachusetts General Hospital researcher and Harvard associate professor called David Pépin, who, during research into slowing the progression of ovarian cancer, has developed a lab-grown form of AMH that could maintain the ovary’s reserve of eggs until much later, possibly indefinitely. Oviva is now testing Pépin’s lab-grown AMH as a potential drug on animals such as mice. For now, this version is too expensive to manufacture in a form that women could potentially take as a daily dose for years, but ideas are afoot as to how to make it cheaper. If the version proves effective, Oviva hopes to start clinical trials within the decade. Assuming genetic testing has been developed to let women know what age they’ll enter perimenopause, at the appropriate time they could start taking drugs to stall the process.
“That would put a pause on your ovarian reserve indefinitely and because your ovaries are putting out the signals that sustain homeostasis [a regular balance] in our bodies, we might not go over that hormonal cliff where we end up with a whole host of symptoms,” Robinton says.
It could also potentially help Robinton in her current dilemma over when to have a second baby. “What we’re doing can certainly be used for some people who have a desire to have pregnancy later,” she says cautiously. “But we’re not addressing the fact that egg quality declines and the physical burden of pregnancy on an older body definitely has higher risk. You want to be in good health for your children.”
Nor does Robinton want to make hyperbolic claims about abolishing menopause. “Our goal is more to target the negative symptoms before menopause and the fact disease risks go up afterwards.”
Robinton grew up in Palo Alto, California, the second of five children of an engineer father and artist mother. She was inspired to become a biologist to help people like her older sister, who had type one diabetes.
Talking to us over Zoom from her home in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Robinton looks nothing like the geeky boffin stereotype. In a grey sweatshirt, she’s lithe-limbed, with Nefertiti cheekbones, honeyed skin and long blonde hair, which gives her an all-American Christie Brinkley aura.
Extremely athletic (her Instagram’s chocka with shots of her snorkelling, jogging and performing yoga poses on the beach), she was captain of her school women’s football team. After an injury left her unable to play, she distracted herself by signing up with a model agency, soon landing a big contract with Abercrombie & Fitch.
When she moved on to the University of California, Los Angeles, she continued to pay her way (five children had stretched her parents’ resources) by modelling for brands such as Reebok, Adidas and Lululemon. By day, she donned lab coats and logged experiments; by night, she dated actors and attended Hollywood pool parties. Yet few of her scientific peers knew about her other life. “I never talked about it, except to very close friends. I was very sensitive to having others think I wasn’t serious.”
Once, procrastinating while writing her dissertation at Harvard, she took an online quiz: “What is your opposite profession?”
“Up popped: ‘The opposite of a molecular biologist is a model.’ It was hilarious – I was like, ‘Well, I’m just a very balanced person.’”
In fact, Robinton found the opposites fed each other. “At Harvard, in particular, modelling became a real outlet for me, a space to really separate from my work and think about it with a little bit more freedom.”
On shoots, when she told hairdressers and make-up artists she was a scientist, they were thrilled. “They’d be like, ‘No way! What are you working on?’ It was a great exercise in really thinking about how I could communicate what I was doing to people whose last science class was probably in high school. Sometimes they’d ask really thoughtful questions that hadn’t occurred to me and would give me new ideas and the energy to go back and try that experiment again for the fourth time.”
“As a PhD student you just get such tunnel vision; nothing works for months at a time and it’s somewhat depressing. But when I talked about the bigger picture of the work and why it mattered, it was really energising.”
Eventually she confessed her double life to a respected senior. “He thought it was amazing. He was like, ‘You have two careers and you’re doing great at both of them!’ He was such a serious scientist that for the first time I felt comfortable, like I had permission to pursue two disparate things, one of which was seemingly frivolous, but which I thought actually really added a lot of value to my life.”
The underlying message – female scientists can’t be glamorous – can’t help when it comes to attracting girls to do subjects. “Absolutely. It’s a weird thing. I remember very clearly when I was a grad student I wore a sleeveless knee-length black Calvin Klein dress for a conference, very business-casual. One of my mentoring people was like, ‘You shouldn’t wear that. People won’t take you seriously.’ I was like, ‘What do you want me to wear? A paper bag? Sorry that I have a figure.’ I said, ‘If someone can’t listen to my talk because they’re distracted by my outfit, I’m pretty sure that’s not a person that I care that much about.’” Now Robinton regularly posts shots of herself in skimpy athleticwear and bikinis, asking her followers, “Does that seem unreasonable to you?”
Biology is the most “feminine” of the sciences (60 per cent of the world’s biology students are women, compared with 27 per cent in physics), but even then there’s little female representation at the highest levels, with women making up just 15 per cent of professors. “Part of the issue of why don’t we study women’s health is because the heads of labs are still predominantly men,” she says.
When scientists have tried to investigate women’s health, no one’s wanted to fund them. Now in the US, however – largely because of the likes of high-profile women such as Michelle Obama, Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow speaking out – menopause, in particular, is suddenly a hot topic that investors are circling avidly, with the global menopause market estimated to be potentially worth 555 billion USD.
It’s a welcome change from centuries of completely ignoring, let alone investing in, female health: until 1993 experiments in the US were done on men with results extrapolated for women, even though their physiology is very different, often leading to them being prescribed drugs that were inappropriate or in the wrong dosage. How much the issue is still seen as niche really hit Robinton in early 2020 when she temporarily was involved in developing Covid antivirals. On a Zoom at the time, a lead scientist suggested omitting female hamsters from their studies because their hormonal activity could mess up the data. “It was absolutely shocking. I was sitting there completely irate, thinking, ‘How do I address this professionally and assert that actually we need both sexes, because the treatment isn’t just going to go to men?’ It really blew my mind.” Eventually, both male and female hamsters were used.
Oviva is funded by Cambrian Biopharma, which invests in a range of research into combating the diseases of ageing. Has the girlfriend of Robinton’s younger brother invested? Businessman Leo Robinton has been seeing Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who’s 32 and estimated to be worth 85 million USD, for three years. “She has not. She could!” Robinton laughs. “Perhaps in future rounds?”
If Robinton’s work comes off, she could become far, far richer than Watson. She’d also be a feminist heroine. Naturally, some are already complaining that her meddling with female biology isn’t natural but Robinton is quick to refute this. “We’re not fighting our biology; we’re supporting it. Anyway, think of all the unnatural things that we do to our bodies all the time: boob jobs, nose jobs, taking drugs to fight your cancer. We just want women to feel good for as long as they can,” she continues. “There are things I do or say that I’m sure will be a turn-off because… [she gives a deep chuckle] it’s not sober or contained enough. But if people don’t like that because it doesn’t fit a certain box, then they’re the wrong partners. Whether they have tonnes of money or not, I don’t want their money.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: DAVID LIU & TONY ELLIS