When MJ Kievman ’20 was 12, she had the hiccups—for three months. She hasn’t stopped thinking about them since.
She met other chronic-hiccup sufferers. She learned of chemotherapy patients hiccupping for weeks on end, their eating and sleeping disrupted. Post-operative people with clinically significant hiccups had devastating and sometimes life-threatening consequences such as broken ribs, cardiac issues, and even suicidal thoughts.
Kievman translated her deep empathy for hiccupers into science-based action. Today, she’s CEO of Meter Health, a biotech firm on the brink of introducing the first-ever hiccup-specific therapeutic drug. Meter Health is currently looking to begin clinical trials in anticipation of FDA review.
For the nearly 1.5 million Americans who annually experience severe chronic hiccups, help can’t come soon enough.
Debunking myths about hiccups and researching ways to relieve them drives Kievman forward every day. “When you think of hiccups, you think of something that’s a silly or minor annoyance. But there is another side to it that a lot of people, arguably most people, don’t know anything about.”
That’s why she cofounded Meter Health with Bartholomew Bacak, an M.D., Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in New York with extensive research experience in the area of hiccups. “Hiccups,” he said, “are an underestimated problem in terms of both their severity and prevalence.” A self-described “hiccup company,” Meter Health is changing that paradigm for both occasional and chronic hiccup sufferers.
In search of a way to stop her childhood hiccups, Kievman discovered that sucking on a lollipop helped quiet her diaphragm. In her family kitchen, she created her own pops with a blend of herbs and other ingredients.
Word spread, and she soon became the “lollipop girl.” People reached out and shared their hiccup stories, compelling her to develop her pops into a patented consumer product—Hiccupops™. She began online sales in 2016.
But Hiccupops only work for occasional hiccups. For those with severe hiccups, there’s no FDA-approved medication on the market.
Enter Bacak, who Kievman met in 2017 while she was a first-year student at Colby. They teamed up to create Meter Health, which merged Bacak’s scientific expertise with Kievman’s entrepreneurial spirit. She dedicated summers during college to establishing the company and to scientific research on the brain’s role in hiccups. In 2019 she coauthored a paper on hiccups with Dr. Aminah Jatoi, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic, published in the journal Current Oncology Reports.
During the academic year, she switched gears. She took a range of courses in creative writing, poetry, Spanish, art history, and religious studies, graduating as an English major. “I benefited greatly from the liberal arts,” she said. “I learn best, and I think I work best, when I’m able to make connections between different things.”
Now full-on at Meter Health, the skills in writing, research, and communication she learned at Colby contribute to her success. Currently responsible for corporate strategy and fundraising, Kievman leads a team of 11 industry experts, including fellow classmate Carol Lipshultz ’20, a biochemist who previously worked in the Schnermann Chemical Biology Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute.
What are the hiccups?
Contrary to popular belief, hiccups are not a respiratory or gastrointestinal issue. They’re a neurological phenomenon originating in our brainstem, the generator of our primary and secondary respiratory patterns, said Kievman. Sometimes, an irritation to nerves in our throat, mouth, or abdomen makes our body feel as if it can’t breathe normally. We’re shocked out of our primary breathing pattern into our secondary one, the hiccups.
Our diaphragm spasms involuntarily, and the flap of cartilage in the back of the throat—the glottis—is forced shut, creating the “hic” sound.
Amphibians also have a glottis, a valve that controls respiration and keeps water out of the lungs. Meter Health scientists subscribe to a “phylogenetic, or evolutionary, hypothesis for why hiccups occur,” said Kievman. The hiccup breathing pattern, they contend, is a type of “gill breathing” that links back to when humans were related to amphibians.
“To stop the hiccups,” Kievman said, “you want to send a strong enough signal back into the brainstem that will allow those breathing patterns to reset.”
Hiccupops provide that reset for occasional hiccups. The science-based lollipop, combined with the sucking motion, helps calm the diaphragm and encourages normal breathing. Available in more than 850 CVS stores nationwide starting May 20, the pops also raise awareness of the need for hiccups to be taken seriously.
Severe hiccups, also called clinically significant hiccups, typically stem from medical conditions or drug treatments. They last longer than 48 hours and require medical intervention.
Currently, physicians experiment with 29 drugs in an attempt to treat clinically significant hiccups, Kievman said. But these drugs lack studies to prove efficacy in the treatment of hiccups, she said. “They risk drug-drug interactions, and they risk very serious side effects for patients.” Backed by hiccup-specific research and extensive clinical trials, Meter Health’s drug will eliminate these concerns, she said.
Kievman is passionate about biotech and wants to take Meter Health as far as she can.
“As much as I experienced it myself, it’s really my relationships with people who are patients and hearing stories from doctors or nurses that have kept me passionate about this,” she said.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to get this disease researched and fixed for people.”