UC Berkeley researcher Polina Lishko receives MacArthur award

Photo of Polina Lishko
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/Courtesy
Polina Lishko’s research focuses on understanding the molecular process of how a sperm cell fertilizes an egg.

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On Tuesday, UC Berkeley associate professor Polina Lishko was named a MacArthur fellow and awarded $625,000 in funding for her work in understanding mammalian fertilization and developing contraceptives.

Lishko’s research focuses on understanding the molecular process of how a sperm cell fertilizes an egg. This knowledge could help infertile couples and could also help develop safe and reversible contraceptives, Lishko said in an email.

“Infertility is a huge psychological burden, as well as unwanted pregnancies, and it is our goal to give people options to deal with such burden,” Lishko said in an email.

Lishko uses a biophysical, biochemical and structural approach to “reshape” the understanding of sperm physiology, according to Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. She added that Lishko’s work has provided “rigorous validation” of the hypothesis that steroids are necessary to developmental signaling in fertilization.

According to Lishko, her lab has made several discoveries that would speed up the development of nonhormonal contraceptives, and a product may be available soon.

Lishko, along with co-founders Nadja Mannowetz and Akash Bakshi, established YourChoice Therapeutics in 2018 after no other pharmaceutical company licensed Lishko’s technology, according to Mannowetz, who worked in Lishko’s lab for five years. Lishko left the company last year, she said in an email.

“How many folks have actively done something to really improve contraception since the 1980s?” Bakshi said. “For someone to devote a career to this work, it’s a testament to doing the right thing and really looking beyond ‘Where’s the funding?’ to ‘Where’s the true impact?’ ”

YourChoice Therapeutics also hopes to develop an on-demand female contraceptive applied before intercourse that would inhibit sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

The company also hopes to create a male contraceptive and an emergency contraceptive that is effective even if taken after a long time, according to Bakshi.

“I hope that one, Polina getting this award is an opportunity for others in the field to understand the importance of contraception, and two, that it continues to fund her lab so she can continue having additional technology that can then be commercialized as well to have positive impacts on reproductive health,” Bakshi said.

The MacArthur Foundation chooses its fellows based on criteria including the promise for future advancements and the potential for the funding to facilitate future work, according to its website. 

Lishko’s research is furthering the understanding of how environmental factors affect human fertility, according to Conrad.

“We strive to create a pool of nominees that reflect the depth and breadth of American creativity,” Conrad said in an email.

Contact Anishi Patel at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.