What If Fertility Didn’t Have a Shelf Life?
Nicole Shanahan and Sergey Brin’s struggle to start a family launched a new era in scientific research. The goal: End menopause.
Written by: By Bonnie Rochman
What sounds like the plot of a sci-fi novel is unfolding in a lab in a soaring glass-and-marble I.M. Pei–designed building sprawled on a hillside in Marin County, California. Outside, deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and the occasional elusive mountain lion roam the 488-acre campus. Inside, Lei Lei, an ovarian biologist recruited from the University of Michigan Medical School, is showing intellectual-property lawyer and legal-tech entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan a magnified image of a mouse ovary. Lei points out the egg cells, which are stained green. “This is a tiny nucleus,” she says, indicating a round speck on the screen. “Very cute!”
Lei works at the Buck Institute’s Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality, which was created and funded by Shanahan and her husband, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, in 2018, after Shanahan had trouble getting pregnant. She was 29 when doctors told her that her body possessed such a low number of active ovarian oocytes (immature egg cells) that she wasn’t likely to produce many, if any, eggs and that she appeared to be nearing menopause. She visited several top-notch fertility clinics in the Bay Area, but none were optimistic about her chances of conceiving.
IVF didn’t work for Shanahan; it doesn’t for more than half of women who try it. (The average success rate for an initial IVF embryo transfer is less than 40 percent.) Egg freezing, offered as an employee perk by many top tech companies, including Google, has even slimmer odds.
Shanahan had come face-to-face with what she refers to as “reproductive inequity.” She was irate. Men more than twice her age could father children with little trouble. Why was a woman in her 20s edging into menopause? No one could tell her.
During this time, she was at TV and film producer Norman Lear’s home for a work event. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, spoke to the group about changing the narrative on aging. As Shanahan listened, she checked her Flo app to see if she was ovulating. Suddenly, it occurred to her: If someone could, in fact, alter this particular aspect of aging, why shouldn’t it be her?