Endometriosis affects more than 1 in 10 women of reproductive age worldwide. For many of these women, it means a life with excruciating pain, infertility, or other severe symptoms. Today, treatment is insufficient and for many women, surgery is necessary to tackle the symptoms.
The start-up FimmCyte brings a novel therapeutic approach to help women suffering from endometriosis. Promising results from animal studies bring hope to an area that has not advanced significantly in decades.
FimmCyte has been accepted into BII’s Venture Lab Program and in the next 12 months, the start-up will optimize its lead candidate and gain a complete picture of how the drug acts in animal models. Two elements that will enable the first–in-human activities.
We spoke with co-founder Mohaned Shilaih about FimmCyte and the women’s health space.
How did you find your way into women’s health?
After my Ph.D. in Epidemiology, I joined Ava, a women’s health start–up. Up until then, women’s health hadn’t really been on my radar, and I knew very little about it. At Ava, I was mentored by Dr. Maureen Cronin who held senior leadership positions in women’s health pharma and is now the CMO of FimmCyte. Since my time there, I have written several papers in this field in collaboration with our lead scientific advisor Prof. Brigitte Leeners.
You’ve discovered an overexpression of a specific protein in endometriosis cells. What was the process leading up to this discovery?
We started from scratch with the intent to create a novel non-hormonal treatment for endometriosis. Most drugs on the market are focused only on hormonal pathways and the downside to these are that 30% of women develop resistance.
We looked at suitable targets and initiated a very deliberate and systematic search led by my co-founder Valentina Vongrad. In combination with a mechanism of action that is well-known in other fields but never used in endometrioses, we are circumventing the unknowns about the disease.
What is the key driver for FimmCyte?
The thing that keeps us going is the potential for helping a large group of women that are currently being treated with what is available rather than with a specific and precise treatment.
Endometriosis causes unbearable pain in otherwise healthy women, and we are hopeful, that we can tackle endometriosis and many other women’s health diseases with our targeted approach.
Only few start-ups in the women’s health space are focused on therapeutics. Why do you think that is?
Therapeutics development takes 8-12 years and costs anywhere between USD 0.25-2Bn, and only a few drugs are approved yearly. Hence, breaking into therapeutics is a high-risk endeavor. There are lower-hanging fruits in the women’s health space and many new startups are trying to advance women’s health through digital interventions.
Generally, gaining market access is much faster in health tech than it is for therapeutic start-ups and that’s not different in women’s health. Although we see an increasing interest in this space from investors, we’re not being cut any slack when it comes to fundraising. It might be easier to get that first meeting, but the conversion rate is the same as for therapeutic start-ups in any other market or field. It requires a lot of upfront capital and investors who are willing to take risks.
Why have we not seen more research and innovation in endometriosis?
I think it is a layered problem. There has been a general dismissal of women’s pain throughout time. They have been told to toughen up and that is still the mindset of many stakeholders. However, the quality of life for an endometriosis patient can be as bad as for a cancer patient. The deterioration is much larger than what you can see with your eyes and measure in samples.
This bias and prejudice have naturally led to less funding and research into the disease. And finally, let’s not forget that endometriosis is a very hard problem to solve.
Johanna Roostalu, Women’s Health Lead at BioInnovation Institute, says the following about FimmCyte:
FimmCyte is a women’s health start-up working on a new therapeutic solution for endometriosis. FimmCyte’s approach is underpinned by meticulous research and holds the potential to enable the development of a much-needed non-hormonal disease-modifying treatment option for this debilitating condition. We are absolutely delighted to support FimmCyte’s highly knowledgeable and passionate international team on their journey towards this goal.