The cells in our bodies are constantly under stress from all kinds of sources. In response, they can recover or die.
But some cells experience a state of "cellular senescence," where the cells stop dividing altogether but remain in the body in a kind of purgatory. As the number of these cells increase, it's theorized that they will start to produce inflammatory by-products that result in aging.
For decades, scientists have been fascinated with cellular senescence and its role in age-related diseases. But researchers have only shown in the past five years that clearing these cells might keep common ailments at bay that occur as we age, like osteoarthritis, glaucoma, and atherosclerosis. And now, investors are starting to see opportunities to bring new therapies to market.
A startup called Unity Biotechnology, which is launching today, is building off of soon-to-be published research in the journal Nature. The research, which was led by a small team at the Mayo Clinic, explores how removing these senescent cells in naturally-aging mice can extend their life span and delay age-related decline. This paper follows recent research, published in Nature Medicine, which found that it's possible to clear these cells in mice by targeting an important pathway for their survival. In other words, by making it near-impossible for these retired cells to stay alive and wreak potential havoc in the body.
"The researchers have shown that clearing these cells profoundly impacts quality of life of a mammal," says Nathaniel David, chief executive officer and cofounder of Unity Biotechnology in an interview. "It remains to be seen how it will work in humans, but we're betting that it will translate."
These are still early days for Unity, but health care investors are jumping on opportunities to fund promising anti-aging research. The initial funding was led by ARCH Venture Partners, with contributions from the Mayo Clinic, and Venrock, a health-focused venture capital firm. The company says it is also working with top anti-aging researchers and lead investigators, including Mayo Clinic professor and biochemist Jan M. van Deursen, and Buck Institute of Research on Aging professor Judith Campisi.
"This is the coolest biology I've seen in a while," said Camille Samuels, an investor at Venrock who joined Unity's board. "Finally legitimate science is coming to a space (anti-aging technology) that has seen a lot of snake oil."
"There are a lot of researchers working on this, but not a lot of companies," says Sabah Oney, a geneticist formerly of Roche. "It's very interesting."
But before it releases a magic anti-aging pill, the company will need to invest in further research as well as a clinical trial phase that involves humans and not mice. That process typically takes years. From there, the drugmakers would need to apply for approval from federal regulators. Unity says its leadership team has collectively moved more than 90 promising therapies to human clinical trials, and created more than 13 FDA-approved medicines.
David says the company will initially focus on osteoarthritis and other conditions that "make it hurt to be old," before expanding the scope to cancer and other diseases.
In the coming years, the company might compete with Calico, the mysterious anti-aging company that spun out of Alphabet (Google's parent company). Calico was announced in 2013, but it has revealed few details about its research objectives since then. However, the company did recruit some impressive names in the anti-aging community, including UC San Francisco's Cynthia Kenyon (watch her fascinating TED talk here). Kenyon's research has centered on the increasing the life span of microscopic roundworms by suppressing a single gene. Calico also scooped up Robert Cohen, a senior oncologist at Genentech; and David Botstein, the former director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.
This story has been updated with quotes from Unity Biotechnology's CEO.