Innovator in Focus: UNITY Biotechnology
UNITY Biotechnology is opening a new front in the war on aging by developing medicines that target “senescent cells,” damaged cells in our bodies that cause inflammation and contribute to aging-related conditions such as osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, kidney disease, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. “We have demonstrated that senescence is a key mechanism in aging and age-related disease," according to Dr. Nathaniel David, founder and president of UNITY.
Some smart investors seem convinced. Last October, UNITY announced $116 million in Series B funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Jeff Bezos’ venture fund Bezos Expeditions, Mayo Clinic Ventures, Venrock, and ARCH Venture Partners. The enthusiasm may be warranted. Early trials seem promising, and UNITY is going after big game. The osteoporosis drugs market alone totaled over $11 billion in 2015, according to estimates from Zion Research.
Research conducted by both the Buck Institute and the Mayo Clinic demonstrate relationships between senescent cells and aging-related diseases. Therapies that eliminate senescent cell therapies have shown promise in early trials on mice, who with treatment are more youthful, energetic, and live 20 percent longer. There are indications the novel approach might help grow cartilage and reverse the devastating effects of osteoarthritis. UNITY hopes to begin conducting human trials by the middle of next year, with an initial focus on osteoarthritis before expanding to other conditions.
But UNITY is not the only one on the anti-aging warpath. In 2013 Google founder Larry Page announced the creation of Calico, which has recruited longevity luminaries such as Cynthia Kenyon to crack the code on the biology of aging. San Diego-based Human Longevity, founded by famed biologist Craig Venter and the accomplished entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, has raised $300 million to build the world's most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes, and then subject it to machine learning to develop anti-aging therapies. Others are pursuing a variety of other promising strategies, including the immunosuppressant rapamycin, sirtuin proteins, and ketone bodies, which are created by the body during fasting and exercise.
The path to immortality is not an easy one. Clinical trials are both lengthy and prone to disappointment. In the best of circumstances UNITY estimates it may be about a decade before their therapies are commercialized, and anti-aging therapies that work in animals are notorious for failing in humans. Moreover, nature has created a very tricky catch-22: Mechanisms that cause aging-related conditions often at the same time prevent terrible diseases. Senescent cells, for example, have been shown to be instrumental in both slowing the effects of aging, and in fighting cancer and helping wounds heal.
However, the payoff for a successful anti-aging therapy will likely be astronomical, and for investors looking to bet on the race to immortality, UNITY appears to have a smart strategy toward commercialization.