While sexism exists in all walks of life, where by 2023, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, studies estimate that it will take the world 257 years to close the gender gap. And the global healthcare industry is partly to blame when it comes to the gaping gender gap.
Women are underrepresented in clinical trials, and studies are not always designed with women in mind, leading to poor healthcare outcomes. As the reasons why one in 10 women miscarry, and conditions like endometriosis are poorly understood, there is a need for women’s health services to move to the forefront.
Because these issues demand attention, over the years, several companies have pioneered shifting focus to bridging the gap in healthcare. With femtech gaining momentum, such as UK-based smart breast pump company Elvie which also sells virtual pelvic floor trainers and American fertility treatment provider Kindbody, attracting investors, the industry is shifting from niche to mainstream. As we celebrate Women’s Health Month in May, let’s take a look at some of the biotech companies that are prioritizing healthcare for women.
As 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), US-based Atossa Therapeutics, founded in 2008, is focused on developing therapies for premenopausal women diagnosed with estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) / human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 negative (HER2- ) breast cancer. But unlike other treatment methods, Atossa candidate does not suppress ovarian function.
The company’s drug (Z)-endoxifen is a metabolite of tamoxifen (a hormone therapy drug). Tamoxifen, according to previous studies, has described an anti-estrogenic effect. (Z)-endoxifen also has the potential to target PKCβ1, an oncogene protein – a protein encoded by an oncogene that can cause cancer. The oral compound Atossa is designed to pass through the stomach, as this can cause (Z)-endoxifene to be converted to (E)-endoxifene which is inactive.
In a phase 1 trial for breast cancer, the candidate proved its tolerability. Together with the Quantum Leap Healthcare Collaborative, the companies are investigating the efficacy of the compound (Z)-endoxifen in patients with newly diagnosed ER+ invasive breast cancer, for whom chemotherapy is not beneficial.
Women’s healthcare company Atossa Therapeutics has raised $32.6 million in investments over four rounds, with the last being a post-IPO equity round in 2015.
Even today, there is still a stigma around formula feeding, and Mothers who do not breastfeed experience this very much. With motives to overcome the shame associated with formula feeding, and to broaden options for women who do not breastfeed, adoptive parents, parents in the LGBTQ community, women who have lost their breasts to cancer, and women living with HIV, women- biotech which Biomilq owns is developing cell cultured human milk.
This US-based startup breeds mammary epithelial cells outside the body where the cells are fed nutrients – similar to those in the bloodstream – to accelerate growth. The cells – several million of them – are then placed in a bioreactor that simulates a microenvironment similar to that of the breast, after which they arrange themselves in layers in the bioreactor, a breast-like formation, where cells absorb nutrients from the mother’s bloodstream and secrete milk into the mammary gland lobules. After several weeks in the bioreactor, the hormone prolactin is added to the cells, where milk is synthesized.
Founded in 2020, the women’s health company has yet to commercialize its products, and plans to do so in the next few years. In addition to its current formula, Biomilq plans to develop different milk lines, including one suitable for a vegetarian diet as well as cells biopsied from the human breast.
Over three rounds of funding, biotech has raised a total of $24.5 million, with the most recent investment being a series A round in 2021.
Because one in three women is affected by poor ovarian health, there is an unmet need, particularly for those diagnosed with cancer, to ensure that the ovaries are functioning properly. Celmatix, a US-based women’s health biotech company, has developed a pipeline that aims to protect the ovaries from chemotherapy-induced ovarian failure (CIOF).
Targeting ovarian aging (ovarian aging is often associated with decreased ovarian follicles) to prevent premature menopause in individuals undergoing chemotherapy, the company’s main AMHR2 agonist compound has shown strong activity in various preclinical trials. Currently in the early drug discovery stage, Celmatix is also looking to develop its compounds to treat female infertility as part of in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The company has partnered with German biotech Evotec for advances in women’s health care to validate targets for conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and ovarian aging. PCOS, which affects millions of women, is usually treated with the contraceptive pill. Part of Celmatix’ collaboration with Evotec is a PCOS drug program, which targets melatonin receptors outside the central nervous system (CNS), which is currently under development.
Founded in 2009, the company has raised a total of $53.7 million over 10 rounds of funding.
Affecting around 190 million women worldwide, endometriosis is a condition in which tissue, similar to that in the lining of the uterus, grows outside the uterus. This disease causes acute pain during menstruation, sexual intercourse, and defecation. While magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a means of detecting the disease, the only way to confirm whether you have endometriosis is to have laparoscopic surgery performed. However, the procedure still fails to detect the lesions in certain cases, and millions of women go undiagnosed. HERA Biotech aims to change that.
In an effort to uncover more ways to diagnose endometriosis, a US-based women’s health biotech company is developing a non-surgical, tissue-based test to diagnose the disease. MetriDx is a uterine tissue biopsy, similar to a pap smear, that uses single-cell microfluid analysis of biomarkers to quickly diagnose endometriosis.
In January 2023, the company announced it had enrolled its first patient in a clinical study for MetriDx. Founded in 2020, HERA Biotech raised $1.9 million in seed funding in 2022, to support MetriDx’s commercialization strategy, with its most recent investors being venture capital firms Coyote Ventures and Althea Ventures.
The vaginal microbiome is a dynamic ecosystem rich in Lactobacillus, which enhances antimicrobial activity. However, an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina due to an imbalance in the microbiome, can lead to conditions such as bacterial vaginosis, which causes an abnormal, foul-smelling vaginal discharge. This disease increases the chances of infertility, premature birth and contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Detecting microbiome disturbances quickly can address the steps that need to be taken to restore healthy microflora. UK-based Juno Bio has developed an at-home vaginal microbiome test to make this possible.
After building a vaginal microbiome repository based on more than 1000 samples from women, a test was devised to decode the microbiome in the vagina. The do-it-yourself kit contains a Q-tip that will be rubbed against the vaginal wall for 20 seconds which is then sealed in a tube and returned to the laboratory for testing. The company can then provide the individual with a personalized microbiome profile, which could be a step towards vaginal health.
Selling for $149 per kit, the startup, founded five years ago, raised $251,000 in funding during one round, with Acequia Capital as its principal investor.
Babies born prematurely are more likely to experience long-term health problems and are at increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Conditions in which the labor process is marked by uterine contractions, dilation of the cervix and rupture of the fetal membranes before 37 weeks of gestation, is called preterm labor. Consequently, approx 13.4 million babies were born prematurely in 2020, According to WHO. Although treatment methods including tocolytics, which are meant to delay labor for up to 48 hours — at which point corticosteroid injections can be given to help mature the baby’s lungs — exist, the FDA’s recent retraction of approval of the progestin drug Makena, the only medication for preterm labor. approved by the FDA, has left pregnant people high and dry with no safe treatment options. However, Swiss-based ObsEva biopharma investigation drug could change the current scenario.
The oral drug eboiprant is a prostaglandin F2a (PGF2a) receptor antagonist. As prostaglandin inhibitors are known to prevent preterm birth, eboiprant when combined with the hormone inhibitor atosiban, was found to reduce labor in singleton pregnancies (birth of only one child during pregnancy) at 48 hours by 55% when compared to doses with atosiban alone, in a phase 2a clinical trial .
In 2021, the women’s health company licensed the eboiprant’s global development, production, and commercial rights to American Pharmaceutical Organon.
The company is also advancing nolasiban, an assisted reproductive technology (ART) to combat infertility. The drug is an oral oxytocin receptor antagonist which aims to increase endometrial receptivity to embryo implantation, to increase the chances of pregnancy. However, although the drug obtained favorable results in its first phase 3 trial, subsequent studies fell short of its main endpoint, leading to discontinuation of the nolasban IVF program, and conversely, changing the candidate’s position.
Formed in 2012, ObsEva has raised $228.4 million in financing in more than five rounds, with the company raising $75 million in debt rounds post-IPO in 2019.