Fifty years ago, the birth control pill was first introduced and forever changed the lives of women. For the first time, women were able to control their pregnancies and plan their lives as they saw fit. Since then, however, the limitations of the birth control pill have been laid bare. “The Pill”, as it is often known, has been linked with an increased risk of thromboembolism (blood clots), for example. More importantly, because taking the Pill is not a one-off remedy, the combined costs still put it out of reach of many women, especially in developing countries.
Israeli start-up Hervana is aiming to spark a second revolution in female contraception by taking a new approach that promises to circumvent these limitations. Instead of interfering with the ovulation cycle through synthetic hormones like the pill does, Hervana’s approach involves applying genetically-modified bacteria via a vaginal suppository. The bacteria produce antibodies that bind to and disable sperm passing through the vaginal tract.
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“Bacteria is safer than the pill”
You may wonder about the safety of applying genetically-modified bacteria to the vaginal tract. According to Hervana founder and CEO Dr Rachel Teitelbaum, such worries are unfounded. “There is usually a layer of bacteria that lines the vaginal tract. Sometimes the bacteria or yeast resident in the tract cause infection. Research has shown that there can only be one type of bacteria on the lining. So, if you have a layer of good bacteria, it actually prevents infection.” As such, Hervana has chosen to use lactobacillus, a type of “good bacteria” naturally found in the vagina, for genetic modification. Besides this, there is another reason for using lactobacillus. “It is a bacteria often found in yogurt, so hopefully that will make it easier for people to accept,” Teitelbaum tells NoCamels.com.
Still, you may question the effectiveness of this approach. Can you be sure that the antibodies produced can bind to each and every sperm? After all, as the saying goes, it only takes one sperm to cause a pregnancy. Teitelbaum has a ready answer: “There are many obstacles for the sperm to get to the ‘home base’. It is true that it only takes one sperm to get pregnant, but realistically men with less than a sperm count of one million per cc are considered infertile.” There is hence no need for antibodies to bind to every sperm.
$1 million from Bill and Melinda Gates
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If successfully brought to market, this technique could represent a revolutionary change in female contraception. Using the bacteria as a contraceptive is a reversible process, as the layer of bacteria in the vaginal tract is discharged with each menstruation. The user would simply reapply after each discharge. Culturing the bacteria also promises to be cheaper than chemical production of synthetic hormones needed for the pill, providing an affordable option of family-planning to women worldwide, especially in developing countries.
It is for this reason that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Hervana a $1 million grant under its global development program to “further test a biological vaginal formulation to arrive at a long-acting, safe, and effective contraceptive that is ready for evaluation in human trials.” Currently, research is directed by Teitelbaum and conducted by researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and various contract research organisations. Hervana’s vaginal suppository has thus far succeeded in preventing pregnancies in mice models, but Teitelbaum estimates that it will take 18 more months for the first trial on a human being. She admits that the stakes are high in human trials of contraceptives, seeing as the success of the contraceptive will determine whether pregnancies occur in the test subjects.
“A vaccine wouldn’t work”
Dr Teitelbaum holds a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. During her research career, she was working with renowned researcher Barry Bloom in the field of vaccines for tuberculosis. Naturally, her first idea for contraception involved vaccines that made the female body produce antibodies against sperm. However, the problem was, as she put it, that “there are no vaccines in the world that are reversible.” That eventually led to the idea of using bacteria to produce the antibodies.
Besides being a researcher, Teitelbaum is also a registered patent agent at the firm Wolff, Bregman and Goller. Accordingly, she has applied for patents all over the world for Hervana’s technology. However, she complains that “they are still very expensive, even for an insider like me.” Like most other start-ups, Hervana is on active look-out for investors. Although there have been private investors, the bulk of Hervana’s capital has come from the million-dollar Gates Foundation grant.
Photo by Matthew Bowden