The race for a breakthrough in longevity biotech

29 November 2019

4 minute read

Investors are backing a new wave of companies promising to address the process of ageing, as researchers consider the economic impact of longer lives.

Earlier this year a team of scientists used a new form of cellular reprogramming to restore the old cells in the eyes of mice suffering from age-related blindness.

A few months before, researchers in Silicon Valley confirmed that they were expanding the trial of a drug that aims to remove old, toxic cells within our body, a process that could dramatically improve the health and life expectancy of patients.

These developments are part of a wide-ranging global effort by pioneering companies to treat a whole range of chronic illnesses associated with old age, from cancer to heart disease and even dementia, by targeting the process of ageing itself.

Innovative new medical solutions, from stem cell research to gene therapy and small molecule therapies, have led to predictions of a dramatic increase in healthspan, our healthy years of life, and an equally dramatic rise in life expectancies.

We could routinely see people living to 120 or more in the future, according to Jim Mellon, chairman of Juvenescence, a longevity biotech company, who opened the Longevity Forum in London last week. He says: “It's an incredibly exciting time in the longevity sector. In the last few years, we have gone from hope to promise, and now we are finally close to realising that promise of longer, healthier lives.”

While life expectancy in the UK has recently dipped, it is still steadily rising in countries around the world. This year, the global population of those aged over 65 exceeded those aged under five for the first time1. This demographic trend is likely to continue, and potentially accelerate, as a result of improvements in longevity science.

Gerald Moser, chief market strategist for Barclays Private Bank, says: “The global demand for healthcare products and services will keep growing significantly in the coming decades, as life expectancies continue to rise. These demographic changes will drive demand for healthcare, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and a range of other services, boosting revenue for companies working in this field.”

Here we look at the latest developments in longevity research, and the work being done to consider the impact beyond biotech for longevity investors.

New developments in longevity research

The field of longevity research currently getting a lot of attention from investors is known as senolytics – a class of drug designed to destroy worn-out cells that build up in the body as we age.

Senescent cells are linked to the development of a range of illnesses, including cancers and removing them in animals has been linked to a substantial improvement in physical health.

Silicon Valley-based Unity Biotech is one of a number of companies focusing on ways to reduce the presence of these older cells in the body as a radical solution to prevent the chronic conditions and diseases associated with ageing.

Unity is initially hoping to address musculoskeletal disorders affecting joints, bones and muscles by attacking senescent cells with new small molecule drugs, and the company is now moving into larger phase two clinical trials.

However, scientists aren’t just looking at ways to develop new drugs to tackle the signs of ageing. Over the last few years, researchers have linked a cheap diabetes drug with improvements in lifespan.

In the case of the recent clinical trial by scientists at the University of California, nine healthy volunteers were given a growth hormone and two diabetes medications, including metformin. After a year, their biological ages fell by an average 2.5 years, based on an analysis of their genetics. The drugs also rejuvenated participants’ immune systems1.

There are now a number of trials taking place into the effect of metformin, including a major multi-centre trial called Targeting Ageing with Metformin (TAME), being led by Dr Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

He says: “There's a whole body of evidence that suggests metformin targets the process of ageing. We know that if you’re not diabetic, taking metformin will reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes by 30% over four years.”

“Moreover, in one of the biggest studies of diabetes here in the UK, metformin also prevented cardiovascular diseases in diabetic patients. Indeed, scientists in the UK demonstrated that people with diabetes on metformin have even lower mortality than those without diabetes.”

Regenerative biology, another popular area of longevity research focusing on renewing or regrowing cells or organs, is now offering promising treatments for spinal cord injury, heart failure, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and lung cancer are also in advanced trials around the world.

LyGenesis, based in Pittsburgh, has been pioneering a treatment that could enable patients to grow new organs when existing ones become diseased. Its first human trial next year will see the use of lymph nodes close to a patient’s liver used to regenerate a functioning replacement liver in cases where the existing liver has become diseased.

The longevity forum panel

Increasing attention from investors

As the case for tackling ageing itself as a way to address chronic diseases gains credibility, the field of longevity science has attracted a growing wave of investment.

Earlier this year, Juvenescence, the longevity biotech company chaired by investor Jim Mellon, raised a further £100m from investors, valuing the UK-based company at £500m. It’s invested in some of the biggest names in the field, including LyGenesis.

“There's so much promise out there,” says Laura Deming, the youngest venture capitalist in the US and founder of The Longevity Fund.

Her fund has invested £37m in over 100 biotech companies working on solutions to age-related chronic conditions, with £500m in follow-on funding secured by the companies she has backed.

“We're focused on getting the first ever drug to show viscerally impactful efficacy for a disease by targeting ageing in trial patients,” she says. “There are two companies right now that could plausibly do that. If successful, it would demonstrate real progress.”

The longevity sector has seen a surge in activity in recent years, with a sharp rise in start-up drug development companies matched by increased appetite from investors to put money into the sector. Total funding in the past six years has exceeded $4 billion, according to Deming.

However, the sector also risks investors’ losing patience, she warns. “At the moment, venture investors are pouring millions of dollars into a concentrated number of companies. Many companies are drawn to the field by people who are passionate about longevity but many of them focus on strategies that are too obvious. We need to do all we can to support as many different approaches as possible, in order to find a successful route forward,” she says.

Deming is supporting new entrepreneurs in the biotech field in the hope of expanding the scope of work being done to address ageing. “It's time to help new generations of entrepreneurs get started and get financing.”

Gerald Moser of Barclays Private Bank says: “The longevity sector has the potential to revolutionise healthcare. However, directly investing in biotech companies comes with very high risks, especially those that don't have approved products on the market yet, from clinical failures to regulatory approval setbacks and commercialization problems. Investors should take a diversified approach and avoid exposure to the fortunes of individual companies.”

Impact beyond biotech

Increases in life expectancy and the rising numbers of older people around the world are fuelling debate about how to transform the potential for those entering retirement. This year, the UK government set up the Longevity Council to advise on how best to use innovations in technology, products and services to improve the lives of the ageing population.

Andrew Scott, co-author for the 100-Year Life, a book examining the impact of much longer lives on the way society and the economy is structured, believes we need to consider the benefits of living longer.

“Demographers have emphasised how society is ageing due to falling birth rates and more people living for longer,” says Scott. “However, this account omits two more positive features: how we are ageing is changing, and human lifespan is increasing.

“The result is on that, on many indicators, on average we are ageing better; we are healthier for longer. Combined with longer lifespans, the consequence is that everyone alive today has to think about having more time ahead of them, and will have to act differently as a result.”

Linda Fried, Dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, argues that after climate change, longevity, or longer living, is the most important trend to affect our future.

Fried says: “Our ageing population is unprecedented in human history. We need to build a new stage of human development, one in which roles and responsibilities of older adults in the last third of life make the most of their experience and boost their wellbeing.”

Gerald Moser of Barclays Private Bank argues that we may need an adjustment to take place across the economy and society similar to women entering the workforce.

He says: “That change took over decades – and there is still further work to be done to see full equality for women in the workplace. What’s more, there were historical events and conditions associated with it that we wouldn’t want to see repeated. Expanding the workforce to include older people could require changes of a similar scale, but could have an equally positive effect on the economy.”

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See Beyond

With advances in health and technology, we're living longer and can increase what is humanly possible - read more in our Beyond series, Beyond 100 and Beyond Human Limits.