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Biology lab

New advances in the biology of aging

22 May 2019

Is the first scientifically approved anti-aging pill about to hit the market?

Earlier this year the Mayo Clinic published the results of the first successful anti-aging human drug trial.

Led by Professor James Kirkland, the trial treated a group of patients suffering from a severe age-related lung condition called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, using a class of drugs known as senolytics. The Mayo team found that by clearing out the build-up of old, toxic or ‘senescent’ cells that come with old age, they were able to significantly improve the mobility and wellbeing of all patients on the trial, without any serious side effects.

This might sound like a small step forward in understanding this particular lung condition but it marked a major breakthrough in the burgeoning field of longevity research.

With other anti-aging human trials already underway and the first scientifically approved longevity drug expected to hit the market within the next few years, the commercial potential for dramatically increasingly the average human life span is now being eyed by investors with increasing scrutiny.

In a sector that has always been blighted by snake oil salesmen, the question remains; if living beyond 100 in a healthy state is now realistically within our grasp, where can the most dependable investment opportunities be found?

Turning back the clocks

The modern pharmaceutical industry has been shaped by three major transformations: the traditional development of small molecule drugs made from chemical compounds, the new adaption of processes found in living organisms to create functioning ‘biologic’ drugs and then most recently, the reengineering of our fundamental biological makeup.

This last stage has been driven by radical new biotechnology and is about to flip everything we have come to expect from evolution on its head.

“With increasing computer power we’ve been given the scientific tools to unlock the genome and modify it, or take an old cell and change it back into a young cell,” says Mike West, CEO of AgeX Therapeutics, a company at the forefront of new regenerative techniques reshaping expectations about human aging.

One particular focus for Mike is the development of ‘pluripotent’ stem cell therapies which could one day be used for repairing tissues in the aged human body afflicted with degenerative disease: “We know that if you spent months on a desert island deprived of nutrients, your liver still has the capability to regenerate itself,” says West. “We’re looking at ways to tap into that, so if you damage your organ or lose a limb, we’re able to stimulate re-growth of that limb or organ”.

An inflection point in longevity research

Claims about not just slowing but actually reversing aging have, perhaps not surprisingly, been met with suspicion by some investors. News of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR running into some challenges in recent years hasn’t helped the cause.

The difference is that we are now starting to see the combination of different advances in biotechnology come together for the first time to help researchers overcome some of these challenges.

“We’ve reached an inflection point,” says Greg Bailey, CEO of Juvenescence Ltd - a drug development and artificial intelligence company focused on ageing and age-related diseases: “where our stem cell company is interacting our machine learning company and then they are both able to interact with our associated pure scientists who are working on the biology of aging to find novel therapies.”

For Bailey, this ecosystem is very important. He sees the combination of small molecule drugs, genetic engineering, stem cell research and senolytic drugs working across disciplines to create advances in lifespan: “The percentage of cells in your knee that are senescent when you have osteoarthritis, could be anywhere from 10-30%,” says Bailey.

“If we have a product that destroys 30% of the tissue in your knee, you’re not walking out of my clinic. But what if I gave you that drug and then inject pluripotent stem cells into your knee and that regenerates your knee, not with 70 year old or 60 year old cells, but one day or one week old cells? That’s what we’re excited to focus on at Juvenescence.”

Collaborative bioscience

While some unproven anti-aging drugs, are already on the market and a new supplement expected to go on sale within a matter of weeks, the question of how long before we see a real shift in life expectancy is still up for discussion.

Harvard Professor David Sinclair has famously suggested that we could start to see an approved anti-aging drug hit the market within the next five years. Other researchers are a bit more reticent to confirm a date. “Over time the technologies themselves will combine to deliver much more than the sum of their parts,” says Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation.

“What’s likely to happen is that we’re going to go from this very slow increase in longevity that we’ve seen over the past century or more, of maybe one or two years per decade in life expectancy, to something where we just can’t measure, because the rate at which we’re improving the therapy will be faster than time is passing,” says de Grey.

Investment Opportunities

Aubrey de Grey is one of a handful of specialists that have been working tirelessly within longevity research or ‘gerontology before it was even recognised as a legitimate area of science. Along with pioneers such as David Sinclair, Mike West, Greg Bailey, Laura Deming and others, de Grey is now actively working with an increasingly engaged group of investors at events such as the Longevity Forum in London to ensure the innovations coming from the not for profit sector feed directly into the wider commercial side of the industry.

The response has already been startling. Investment in longevity biotech start-ups has rocketed from 200 to 800 million in less than four years and is only likely to increase further as human trials continue.

The challenge, as with all nascent investment opportunities, will be separating the charlatans from the real leaders in the field.

Barclays Private Bank has reached out to a global network of experts to understand the key investment challenges and opportunities within this field. Our detailed Beyond 100 white paper and series of videos looks closely at the impact of longer, healthier lives on the global economy.

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