Buck Institute in Novato gets $6 million grant to study negative health effects from menopause

Nicole Shanahan and husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, are paying for the local study of ovarian aging plus international research on the topic.|

Wading into an area little known to science, the Buck Institute for Research on Aging on Monday launched a study of the harmful health effects women experience after menopause, paid for with a $6 million gift from Nicole Shanahan, a Bay Area tech entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Shanahan is married to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and among the wealthiest people in the world.

Eric Verdin, president and CEO of the Novato research group, called the announcement of the Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality “one of the most exciting days in the life of the institute,” which opened 20 years ago Monday.

The center is the first in the world focused on preventing or delaying ovarian aging, Buck officials said, noting the subject has been recognized but not significantly investigated.

“There’s a profound inequality here between men and women,” Verdin told an audience of 225 people in the institute’s auditorium. Menopause triggers a cascade of negative health effects, including osteoporosis and risk of heart disease, he said.

The age at which a woman reaches menopause “is a very strong indicator of lifespan,” Verdin said, noting that men have no such experience. “Menopause makes the body age faster.”

Recent studies have shown ovarian aging may be caused by some “molecular mechanisms,” such as impaired DNA repair, metabolic and energetic disorders and mitochondrial dysfunction.

“I think we are going to be doing a lot of good for women,” Verdin said.

Taking the campaign a step further, Buck and the Bia-Echo Foundation, started by Shanahan, announced a plan to award $7.4 million in grants over the next two years to scientists worldwide who are working on ovarian aging.

The Global Consortium for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality will be based at the Buck Institute, which occupies a landmark white marble-clad building on a hillside west of Highway 101 in Novato.

The $6 million gift for research at the Buck Institute came from Shanahan and the Sergey Brin Family Foundation established by Brin, president of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., who is worth about $52 billion.

“Personally, I find it crazy that my reproductive organs are considered geriatric long before any other organ even begins to show the slightest sign of decline,” Shanahan said at lunch during the Buck announcement. “I find it even crazier that we have conceded to this narrative for over 50 percent of the population.”

Buck faculty members who are part of the new center participated in a panel discussion Monday.

“We really don’t understand why ovaries age,” said Jennifer Garrison, whose lab studies the interaction between the ovary and the brain in middle age to identify factors that lead to reproductive decline.

“We are strange,” she said, noting that human females are among the few mammals that experience menopause, losing reproductive function long before they die. “It obviously doesn’t need to happen.”

The other four known species are toothed whales: belugas, narwhals, orcas and short-finned pilot whales.

Ovarian tissue shows signs of aging decades before the rest of a woman’s body, and menopause “literally affects every aspect of her life,” including family planning and career, she said.

Underscoring the reproductive disparity between the genders, Garrison said a man makes 1,500 sperm cells every time he takes a breath for his entire adult life. A woman has 7 million eggs - all the eggs she will ever have - at 26 weeks of gestation.

At birth, she has 1 million eggs and at puberty about 300,000 and 1,000 eggs subsequently die every month.

“There are a lot of unknowns and frontiers,” said Francesca Duncan, a cell and molecular biologist.

Lei Lei, an ovarian biologist, said she thinks the center “will play a role in educating the whole society,” adding her hope that it changes life for her daughter or granddaughter.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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