Image:Image: Oksana Horiun/Getty Images. Design: Danielle Giarratano
How much do you know about the ovaries? For starters, the ovaries are the central command of a woman’s health and vitality, according to Piraye Yurttas Beim, Ph.D., CEO of Celmatix, a women’s health-focused biotech company. “The ovary does so much, and when it stops functioning, our period or menses ends,” she said. “It’s kind of hilarious that we mark the end of function of this critical and vital organ by men just seeing that we don’t have our periods anymore.”
Historically, women’s health has taken the back-burner when it comes to attention, funding, and energy, despite our ovaries concerning more than women’s reproductive health. “The ovary is important for metabolic function, for immune function, for brain health, ” said Dr. Yurttas Beim. “When you have ovarian dysfunction early in life with conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (which impacts about 15% of all women) or early menopause conditions like that, it’s not just a reproductive condition. We have to stop referring to these as our reproductive organs.”
She added, “We have to stop referring to these as reproductive conditions because they do so much more. Women with PCOS, for example, will have significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and hirsutism, so this is more than just about reproduction. That’s important for women to understand.”
There is a huge disparity in funding for research and innovation in this space even though menopause is a catastrophic public health crisis and life event. “Less than 2% of all biopharma funding goes into innovation in women’s health,” said Dr. Yurttas Beim. That amount is a stark contrast to the number of pharmaceuticals on Earth. And yet, that 2% doesn’t create a virtuous cycle back into better products for women.
That’s why she founded Celmatix and began her journey to finding a drug to extend ovarian function and end menopause. “In reality, 100 years ago, menopause was not a thing. The average life expectancy for a woman in the U.S. was 48,” she said. “The ovary functions, on average, until about 50 to 55. Now fast-forward just 100 years later, the average life expectancy for us in this room is 82,” she said at She Media’s Future of Health event at SXSW earlier this month. “So we’re not just outliving the function of this critical organ, we are outliving it for decades.”
But even though women are living longer, we’re not always thriving. “There is no other organ where we just simply let it die, and we consider it natural,” said Dr. Yurttas Beim. “When people say, ‘Well, menopause is natural.’ I remind them, ‘Well, dying in childbirth is natural. And, yet, we don’t think that’s okay.”
And if the roles were reversed and this was happening to men, there would have probably been a solution ages ago. “We’re working on a drug to help extend ovarian function, and help it decline slowly, the way that testicular function declines for men, so we can age like a fine wine as well,” she said.
Dr. Yurttas Beim and her team have been starting from scratch to make this happen, especially considering women are less likely to respond to drugs, more likely to have an adverse effect, and more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. “We’re coming from ‘here’s a unique creature that has unique body parts and unique genes in her body, and let’s figure out what makes that biology unique and then design products for that body,’ ” said Dr. Yurttas Beim.