The investing world is pondering if the business of longevity has legs.
Advances in genetics and cellular biology have given scientists a more detailed picture of why and how we age. Now biotech start-ups are trying to use that knowledge to keep people healthier as they grow older with the aim of eventually extending the human life span.
Scores of products and treatments are in the pipeline, including drugs designed to rev up metabolism or stop muscle loss in the elderly; therapeutics that rejuvenate aging cells; and new treatments for cancer, one of many diseases that become more prevalent as we age.
Few of these treatments have been approved by regulators, nor are they likely to be for another five or 10 years as new drugs go through trials. “The most important thing is to stay alive for another 10 years because by then we will definitely have an effect” on aging, says Jim Mellon, founder of Juvenescence, which is both developing its own longevity treatments and investing in other longevity biotechs.
Among other things, Juvenescence is developing ketone-based therapies for the treatment of heart disease. Ketones are an energy source that the body uses for fuel during long periods of exercise or fasting.
Longevity investments soared from $525 million in 2013 to $9.26 billion in 2021, according to Longevity.Technology, a website that publishes news and statistics on the industry. The high point came in January 2022 with the $3 billion launch of Altos Labs, which has a lofty goal of “transforming medicine with cellular rejuvenation programming.” Altos is researching the use of stem cells to rejuvenate cells.
founder Jeff Bezos is among the company’s backers, according to numerous reports, though the Altos isn’t confirming that.
Investments in the longevity industry, along with funding for biotechs of all stripes, have slumped amid rising interest rates and economic worries. Last year saw $3.01 billion in investments, according to Longevity.Technology. Editor-in-Chief Phil Newman says this and next year could be “very tough,” but he sees investments surging when longevity drugs get closer to approval.
“They are going to change the world because people are going to stay healthier longer and they’re going to stay productive longer,” Newman says. “Who wouldn’t want a longevity drug?”
One of the biggest challenges confronting longevity biotechs is monetization. Even if a biotech came up with a treatment that made people live longer, it isn’t clear how it would be reimbursed by Medicare or private insurers since growing older isn’t a disease.
Instead, much like traditional pharmaceutical companies, biotechs are pursuing treatments for diseases of aging, including heart disease, cancers, and metabolic and neurological disorders. There is already a large market for drugs and treatments for these ailments.
“My enthusiasm hat says, ‘Let’s solve aging’,” says Sergey Jakimov, founding partner of venture-capital firm LongeVC. “My VC hat says we might start with solving certain age-related diseases, which will have a very big longevity benefit across the population.”
Turn.bio, one LongeVC investment, is developing medicines with mRNA—the same technology used for the leading Covid vaccines—that instruct cells in the body to fight disease or repair damaged tissue. Another investment is in a Swiss company called PreComb, which takes biopsies from cancerous tumor samples, grows them in a laboratory, and rapidly tests different treatments and chemotherapy combinations to find the most effective. “They come back to the patient within 10 days with a personalized treatment selection,” says Jakimov.
Alex Colville, co-founder of age1, another longevity VC firm, says his company is investing in four main buckets: delaying disease; replacing aging cells; rejuvenating aging cells; and slowing the metabolism to achieve some of the same health benefits that animals get when they hibernate.
One of age1’s investments is Arda Therapeutics, which is developing technology to identify and remove diseased cells while leaving healthy cells in place.
A bunch of VCs are investing in a biotech called BioAge Labs that has raised $127 million so far. BioAge will be in Phase 2 trials for a drug that mimics the effects of a protein called apelin that is released during exercise and helps people retain physical function as they age. It is being tested in combination with the
weight-loss drug Zepbound with the hope that people taking the drugs will have increased and healthier weight loss, including a better balance of muscle and fat.
BioAge CEO Kristen Fortney says her company identified apelin by studying blood samples and health records of thousands of people. Apelin levels decline as people age, the company’s research determined. “If you have higher apelin in your blood, that predicts increased future life span,” she says.
The vast data-sifting capacity of artificial intelligence will play a role in many other longevity treatments. Venture capitalist Amol Sarva of Life Extension Ventures says advances in longevity won’t necessarily come from new drugs or treatments, but by using AI to parse better use of existing treatments.
Life Extension Ventures is investing in Onc.ai and Curve Biosciences, two companies that identify diseases earlier and target the right treatments. Another investment is the start-up Cure51, which is assembling a database of “super-survivor data” from people who have battled cancer, Sarva says.
“We are software centric,” says Sarva, who says many of the approaches that work in Silicon Valley could be effective against aging.
Over time, more research could be directed at slowing down the process of aging itself. “Our medical system is highly reactive to a whole series of diseases that are mostly driven by aging,” says Dr. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, a nonprofit. “Why not tackle the root cause of these diseases and stop them from occurring in the first place?”
Such a moonshot might come from existing drugs. Verdin points to the drug rapamycin, an immunosuppressant that is given to people with kidney transplants to prevent organ rejection. There is a growing body of research that suggests the drug has antiaging properties, but it can also have undesirable side effects. So biotechs are trying to develop new drugs that have rapamycin’s benefits without its side effects.
Eating too much and too often is a cause of diseases that are major killers in modern society. Research has found health benefits from intermittent fasting, or time-limited eating. Rapamycin appears to have this same effect, says Verdin. “It fools the body in terms of thinking that you are almost constantly fasting,” Verdin says.
The big breakthroughs in longevity drugs and treatments could come from traditional pharmaceutical companies. Since most diseases are age-related, many of the medicines pharmaceutical companies currently market are effectively longevity drugs.
Statins, which millions of people around the world use to prevent arteriosclerosis or heart disease, can be viewed as an antiaging drug. So too for the new weight-loss drugs, which appear to provide a range of health benefits beyond weight loss, including reduced heart and metabolic disease and possibly even reduced dementia.
Indeed, the most likely exit strategy for longevity biotechs is that they either will be acquired by big pharmaceutical companies or sell their treatments to them. Longevity.Technology’s Newman says pharmaceutical companies has been closely watching the longevity biotechs and will step up its investments in the space as drugs get closer to approval.
“They are waiting for things to shake out,” he says.
Write to Neal Templin at email@example.com
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