For some time I've been tracking work on extending healthy lives and longevity, both from a scientific as well as an investment perspective. I indicated that there are a number of young biotech companies that start out seeking to extend lifespan, but as a survival mechanism, end up choosing a disease that is more common with age and seek to address that.
Another approach that is starting to get some traction involves thinking about drugs to extend the quality of life window, to shorten an end of life period that has poor quality because of complex and debilitating health issues.
One approach came from parabiosis, where blood supplies of young and old mice were connected. In effect by infusing young blood (or factors in young blood) youthfulness was stimulated in elderly mice.
I suggested that the above scientific discoveries could provide a new product opportunity for blood product companies and indeed in early 2015 major blood products supplier Grifols (NASDAQ:GRFS) invested $37.5 million to acquire a 45% stake in young California biotechnology company Alkahest. Alkahest is a quality biotech company that is proceeding scientifically and cautiously with the "young blood" project with a small clinical trial looking at cognitive repair (Alzheimer's disease). Recently Alkahest hired experienced industry veteran Dr Sam Jackson (ex-Genentech, ex-Dynavax (NASDAQ:DVAX)) as Chief Medical Officer, to lead translational and clinical development activities at Alkahest.
The parabiosis field is not without some controversy as it does attract the fringe blood supplements end of the market. An example is another Californian startup, Ambrosia, that is working on anti-aging blood transfusions from young people. The difference between Ambrosia and Alkahest, is that whereas Alkahest is carefully developing trials, Ambrosia is hawking for business in a trial that has no controls and charges participants $8000 for a single plasma transfusion (with a follow-up biomarker analysis). The entrepreneurial CEO has been reported as saying that within a month most participants see improvements. The Ambrosia study has been criticised by scientists familiar with the parabiosis field.
In my article on parabiosis I mentioned that old blood had "factors" that caused aging, or at least age-related phenomena. A possible way that this happened was through "Senescent Cells", that had stopped dividing, sending out bad vibes. This spawned to field of "Senolytics".
Here I update the prospects for Senolytics-type treatments and comment on Unity Biotechnology that operates in this space.
Two years on from my earlier article, Californian startup Unity Biotechnology has got serious about these elderly cells and is developing techniques to remove them. Unity has a first rate pedigree, both from the quality of its science as well as the quality and support from sophisticated investors. Indeed six months ago the less than one year old startup raised $116 million in a Series B financing..... shades of the young informing the old!
What is Unity Biotechnology seeking to do?
Unity describes Senescent Cells as biological emergency brakes that are prevented from dividing. This is a good thing for cancer prevention as old cells, that might be damaged and lead to cancer, are prevented from going there as they can't divide. However, Unity indicates that Senescent cells are not passive. They do hang around, but they also give out bad vibes by secreting factors that cause inflammation and damage normal cells.
Unity's focus is on taking basic science on mouse models, which has identified drug candidates to eliminate senescent cells, to develop these into drugs to reverse or prevent a range of diseases of old age, including osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis (heart disease), eye and kidney diseases.
The Science behind Unity Biotechnology
Publication of a research paper in a top science journal like Nature, Nature Medicine, or Science is often a career high for the best scientists. The competition to get published in these journals is fierce and few scientists have been published in these journals. In the last 3 years (2014-2016) the science underpinning Unity Biotechnology (including patents licensed to Unity Biotechnology, and authors who are cofounders/advisors to Unity) has been published in 2 Nature, 1 Science and 1 Nature Medicine Articles. This is a powerful statement about the quality of the science that Unity Biotechnology is pursuing.
Six publications are listed on the Unity website. These publications address the process of cellular senescence in cancer prevention (stopping potential cancer cells from growing) and aging. The publications also address the role of senescent cells in life extension, delay of age-related disorders, and development and progression of heart disease.
Drug candidates for selectively killing Senescent Cells were identified and shown to work in a mouse model and also to prevent induction of premature aging, and cause rejuvenation of some aspects of aging mice.
Note that all of these studies are highly technical and use mouse models, but the results are amazing. Of course the work needs to be translated into humans.
How is Unity Biotechnology positioned regarding its product developments?
Unity is too young to be far down the track of clinical development. The basic science is very new. They have two programs in pre-clinical development : inflammatory joint disease (osteoarthritis) and ophthalmology (eye disease). They have programs on heart disease, lung disease and chronic kidney disease in the research stage.
This means that the company isn't really out of the starting blocks in a traditional drug development pathway. It has no drug candidates in Phase 1 trials.
Unity boasts that its management team has moved 91 drug candidates into human clinical trials and that they have help shepherd 13 drugs through FDA approval. This is a clear statement that the Unity team has a track record of delivery in the clinic. At the same time the founders are leaders in the field and have academic positions in top US Research Institutes (Mayo Clinic, Buck Institute, University of Arkansas).
The above explains why a group of very sophisticated biotech investors invested $116 million in a Series B round late last year. This group includes Arch Venture Partners, Fidelity Investments, Venrock, as well as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' investment group Bezos Expeditions.
Where is Unity Biotechnology headed?
Unity has ambitious goals: "Imagine a future in which you age, but without the diseases your parents got. A future in which it doesn't hurt to grow old. At Unity, we design therapeutics that prevent, halt, or reverse diseases of aging. Our medicines are designed to lengthen healthspan, the amount of time you live in good health"
Prospects for investors
Unity positions its business in terms of the world's over-60 population doubling to 2 billion by 2050 — meaning one in four humans will be old.
There is no doubt about the importance of where they have chosen to work. The upside for drug development in this context is huge. As I indicate above the team is well rounded, with the best science, ability to take a drug through FDA trials and to finance the program.
It is too early to know how their candidate drugs are going to work on humans, but this is a rapidly evolving field, so worth keeping an eye on.
I've been watching this field for a couple of years now, initially trying to make sense of what sort of business opportunity is possible in the aging/life extension area. It looks like things are progressing for the Grifols funded Alkahest, but it will be some time before the future prospects become clear.
In the Senescent cells area, I think Unity Biotechnology has identified a credible approach to drug development in this area and the animal studies that underpin their business have produced extraordinary results.
Investment in this company at this stage is closely held by strategic company builders, who see the upside of defining a new area for the pharmaceutical industry. So normal investors can't get in yet. The take home message is to keep an eye out for Unity Biotechnology going to IPO some time down the track. I have no idea when this will happen, but a candidate in successful Phase 1 trials might generate enormous interest, although of course a number of big pharma companies may want to own this company before it goes to IPO.
Author's note: I'm not a financial advisor. I'm interested in emerging themes in the biotech space that are transformative and likely to be lucrative for investors. If you find my commentary interesting in making investment decisions, perhaps you might consider following me.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.