Buck Institute in Novato Expands Reproduction Research

The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan announced Monday they are expanding their partnership to study the connection between female reproduction and longevity.

Some 200 people gathered at the Buck Institute to celebrate the official launch of the Buck’s new Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality. The center was created in July 2018 with $6 million in seed money from Shanahan, who is the founder and CEO of ClearAccessIP and the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Shanahan said Monday that the Bia-Echo Foundation, which she founded with Brin, will provide an additional $7.4 million to create the Global Consortium for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality based at the Buck Institute.

Buck Institute CEO Eric Verdin said the consortium “will be a grant-funding mechanism emanating from the Buck.” It will stimulate research in the field of female reproductive aging by distributing the $7.4 million as grants over the next two years to scientists worldwide.

Addressing attendees Monday over lunch, Shanahan recounted how her interest in women’s reproductive longevity was sparked by her own problems getting pregnant.

“Ten percent of women are infertile by the time they turn 35, and just five years later at the age of 40, a woman has only a 5% chance of becoming pregnant,” Shanahan said. “I committed myself to help future generations of women have more choices.”

According to an article published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Friday, Shanahan has pledged to give $100 million to “programs that help women become pregnant later in life, that aim to overhaul the criminal-justice system, and that address the effects of climate change.”

In a statement, Verdin said, “While menopause and ovarian aging set off a cascade of negative health effects in women’s bodies that impact bone, cognitive, cardiovascular and immune function, the field has been significantly understudied.”

Although Shanahan and Brin were able to conceive a child, Shanahan said at one point she had given up hope. Shanahan, who earned a law degree before founding ClearAccessIP, a patent management technology company, said she had to overcome gender bias and workplace discrimination to succeed in her career.

“Like many women who are not quite ready to start a family in their early 30s, I decided, or so I thought at the time, to take matters into my own hands and freeze embryos,” Shanahan said. “However, after three failed attempts at embryo-making and three dozen visits to in vitro fertilization clinics around the Bay Area, I learned that I was not nearly as unshakable as I thought I was. “

Shanahan said she was prevented from going through the early stages of in vitro fertilization treatment due to a diagnosis with polycystic ovary syndrome. She said her goal is to see scientific advancements to allow women to continue bearing children into their mid-50s.

True to the Buck Institute’s credo, “live better longer,” Verdin emphasized the mission of allowing women to remain healthier as they age.

“Even though women live longer than men by two or three years, they tend to age with more disease than men,” Verdin said. “There is a profound inequality there between men and women.”

The event included a panel discussion with a group of scientists who have recently joined the Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality.

“Every woman is given a pool of eggs in the fetal stage,” said Lei Lei, an associate professor and the center’s scientific director. “We are only able to use less than 1 percent of the eggs in the pool. What if we could use just a little more?”

Jennifer Garrison, faculty director of the Global Consortium for Reproductive Longevity and Equality, said one of the biggest mysteries is why humans are one of only a handful of species who undergo menopause. The other species definitely known to experience menopause are all toothed whales — belugas, narwhals, killer whales and short-finned pilot whales.

Garrison said it is also puzzling why women’s ovaries reach their maximum potential prior to their first use and rapidly decline by a woman’s fourth decade of life.

Shanahan said, “Personally, I find it crazy that my reproductive organs are considered geriatric long before any other organ even begins to show the slightest decline. I find it even crazier that we have conceded to this narrative for half of the human species.”