June 19

Rachel Teitelbaum is pursuing a dream. A dream that could revolutionize contraception and improve the lives of countless women.

She’s found that by sending the right signal to lactobacilli — a type of bacteria naturally present in the female reproductive tract — she can prompt it to produce an antibody that stops sperm dead in their tracks.

She and her small team of researchers in Israel are developing a non-hormonal once-a-month tablet that will be as effective as the Pill, but with none of the drawbacks or side effects.

It’s also discreet, flexible and doesn’t disrupt a woman’s cycle. Take it and it works, stop taking it and it doesn’t. It also offers protection from sexually transmitted diseases.

Lightbulb moment

Teitelbaum, who has a PhD in microbiology and immunology, clearly remembers the lightbulb moment when she realized that lactobacilli – the same probiotic found in yogurt – could be the key to a new era of birth control.

Dr. Rachel Teitelbaum, founder of Hervana Bio. Photo courtesy of Hervana Bio
Dr. Rachel Teitelbaum, founder of Hervana Bio. Photo courtesy of Hervana Bio

“I had a dream, and I woke up in the morning and retained it,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

“I was obsessing about it before I went to sleep. ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ And when I woke up, I realized I know what to do.”

That was way back in 2003. “You get an idea like this in your dreams, you start to question your sanity,” she says.

So she set about doing some serious research, speaking to peers, checking whether anyone had tried it before, establishing whether her dream could actually be turned into reality.

She’d recently moved to Israel from the United States and had been planning to become a patent attorney, but that dream set her on a new direction.

A gamechanger

The journey from a great idea to launching a product is long and the road can be bumpy, but Teitelbaum reckons she’s now closer to the finish line than the start.

She founded Hervana Bio in 2008, largely with her own money. By 2012 she had encouraging results from early tests on animals, and successfully applied to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for grants which have so far totaled $1.5 million. 

She and her three fellow researchers have not so far sought investment from venture capitalists or strategic corporate partners. The target date to launch their product, known as LJ-102, is currently 2031.

“We’re offering something that’s never been available to women,” she says. “We have a family-planning method that addresses the female need for contraception and for protection against sexually transmitted disease. 

“We’re discreet, we don’t interfere with the cycle, which for a variety of cultures globally, is really important. We don’t have the health issues that hormonal manipulation comes along with. All of these aspects are critical. I think we are a gamechanger,” she tells ISRAEL21c. 

“For somebody who wants effective contraception and the ability to control it month by month, there is no better option than what we’re offering.”

Hervana Bio’s contraceptive would bypass the many problematic aspects of the Pill and other methods. Illustration by Buravleva Stock via Shutterstock.com
Hervana Bio’s contraceptive would bypass the many problematic aspects of the Pill and other methods. Illustration by Buravleva Stock via Shutterstock.com

Sperm cells hauling backpacks

Her new form of contraception hinges on lactobacilli, a species of bacteria that’s part of the microbiome – a complex community of microorganisms – found in the female reproductive tract.

Lactobacilli play an important role in overall wellbeing. But their job description doesn’t include producing antibodies, an essential component of our immune system.

Teitelbaum and her team hijack the lactobacilli’s internal DNA machinery and give it the gene that makes it produce an antibody it wouldn’t otherwise produce.

“That antibody binds itself to the sperm, so it can no longer bind to the egg and fertilize it,” she says.

“Imagine you’re a sperm and you’re wearing a backpack, and you’re pulling an accordion behind you. All of a sudden, it’s a lot harder to work your way up to where you have to go.”

The once-a-month vaginal tablets turns the lactobacilli micro-organisms into mini-factories, producing the required anti-sperm antibody.

“The natural bacteria don’t do this, only my specially engineered bacteria do. And so the woman takes a supply of these engineered bacteria every month.”

If she doesn’t take the tablet, the mini-factories stop working and her fertility is restored.

Close to perfection

So what’s left to do?   Well, there are a lot of checks and balances before you can launch a new contraceptive, in this case the first non-hormonal one since the IUD (copper intrauterine device) in the 1970s.

Hervana Bio has to formulate the tablet, address its shelf life and distribution. At first it will probably be a three-pack of tablets prescribed by a doctor. Over time it could be administered as a single tablet and could become available over the counter. 

The product also has to do undergo extensive toxicology tests and human trials before it can be granted approval.

And how effective will it be? 

“It’s all about the numbers,” says Teitelbaum. “Women think the Pill is 99% effective, but in the real world it’s more like 90% to 91%.

“We’re going to be competitive with those efficacy values. Our animal models [mice on fertility medication] are very suggestive of close to perfect protection, so that’s very promising.”

Teitelbaum says she’s looking forward to developing Hervana Bio beyond contraception, as a women’s health company specializing in female reproductive cancers and infertility.

“People seem to be surprised that a modern Orthodox Jewish woman would invest time and effort in developing a contraceptive,” she says.

“There seems to be a preconception that Orthodox women are not going to be interested in this. And certainly, there’s some sort of preconception that even if we’re interested, we’re not going to be involved in developing it.”

Her dream has proven otherwise.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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