Flagship's first venture of 2020 is out, and it's all about sperm
A couple years ago, Amber Salzman got a call as she was returning East full-time after a two-year stint running a gene therapy company in California.
It was from someone at Flagship Pioneering, the deep-pocketed biotech venture firm. They had a new company with a new way of thinking about sperm. It had been incubating for over a year, and now they wanted her to run it.
“It exactly fit,” Salzman told Endpoints News. “I just thought I had to do something.”
Nearly two decades prior, Salzman had a child with a rare genetic disease that almost took their life. An executive at GSK, she knew to do in-vitro fertilization for her next child so they could test for the disorder. It was “grueling,” she said – the hormone treatments, the cycles, the cost. But she figured that price was limited to folks with rare diseases.
Then Flagship explained the stats that got them interested: 7 million American couples struggling with infertility, increasing rates of premature births and diseases as people have children older and older.
Two years later, that company is launching as Flagship’s first venture of 2020. It’s called Ohana Biosciences and it’s all about sperm.
“While we’ve known for a long time there is a biological clock for women, there is also a biological clock for men,” Salzman said.
Flagship’s mantra is building new platforms that “envision alternative futures,” by “beginning with seemingly unreasonable propositions,” and then pouring huge amounts of money behind it. The relevant metaphor here is Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Vision fund, only smaller and instead of investing in dog-walking apps, they invest in literally curing cancer, among other diseases.
The idea for Ohana – which, as Hawaiians and most Americans who were of a certain target demographic between 2002 and 2006 can tell you, means family – began percolating at Flagship’s offices around 2015, Salzman said. That’s when single-cell sequencing technology began looking actionable. Flagship thought they could use it to develop a solution to a host of fertility issues.
Since then, they’ve built a team to DNA and RNA sequence sperm and then leverage those insights into therapies. That team doesn’t include many folks with experience in reproductive health, which Salzman frames as an advantage.
“It was the beauty of not really knowing too much about sperm and really questioning the fundamental assumptions about sperm,” Salzman said.
The company is starting with a clinical trial underway in six US states to test its new “sperm preparation kit” for couples trying to have a kid through in vitro fertilization. Such IVF add-on “add-ons” have looked scientifically dubious thus far but few, if any, have had the biotech backing Ohana does.
The ultimate goal, though, goes beyond improving fertility. The next program will focus on an anitbody-based non-hormonal birth control for men, hopefully circumventing the side effects that have killed male birth control programs in the past.
And the real centerpiece is this: The company says they’ve found molecular differences between the sperm of individual men. They say they will be able to put that sperm through a process to isolate the ones that have the best chance of a healthy birth.
It’s an intriguing concept, although there’s no data yet to back it, other than some associational studies between a father’s age and potential disease. Ohana says they’ll reveal it in time, but they’ve made big promises already.
Their website lists autism as a disease they may able to help prevent. Pressed on if they have good evidence they’ll be able to do that, Salzman said it was just meant as an example.