Mayo Clinic Ups Investment In High-Profile Anti-Aging Startup
Mayo Clinic Ventures has upped its investment in a buzzworthy San Francisco biotech company seeking to commercialize anti-aging research performed at the Rochester clinic’s Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for Senescence Research.
Unity Biotechnology, co-founded by lab director Jan van Deursen, announced in late October it had completed a mammoth $116 million Series B funding aimed at continuing the research and paving the way for human clinical trials on van Deursen’s method of targeting “senescent” human cells to battle osteoarthritis—and potentially a much wider range of age-related maladies.
A statement released by the company indicated Mayo Ventures had participated in the Series B, following up on its opening-round investment when Unity launched with fanfare in February.
Despite its early-stage status and an unsettled debate over the role of senescent cells in human aging, evidence of Unity’s appeal to star investors was shown when it was announced that Bezos Expeditions—the investment vehicle of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos—also took part in the equity round, as did well-known VCs such as ARCH Venture Partners, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Co., Partner Fund Management and Venrock.
Along the with the financing, Unity also showed it is beefing up its regulatory and commercial operations, a strong sign it is moving closer to human clinical trials for its biotech platform. Keith Leonard, 25-year biotech industry veteran, was introduced as the new CEO, while co-founder and previous CEO Nathaniel David was shifted to president, focusing on further developing Unity’s technology.
The Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for Senescence Research at Mayo Clinic is the home of van Deursen and colleagues who have been investigating the role played in the aging process by senescent cells—living cells that have stopped reproducing due to age or damage.
Such senescent cells should destroy themselves or be eliminated by the body’s immune system, but some survive, collect around joints and emit secretions that harm surrounding tissue and influence other nearby cells to also become senescent. Cellular senescence is regarded as one of the root causes of degenerative aging, but its role in age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis, glaucoma and atherosclerosis has been speculative and largely unproven.
That changed in February when van Deursen co-published groundbreaking research demonstrating how cellular senescence is linked to the aging process in mice. Specifically, his study showed that removing senescent cells extends the lives of otherwise normal mice by 25 percent. And crucially, it also showed that removing such cells actually sets back aging process, delaying the formation of eye cataracts, the onset of heart and kidney deterioration and even tumor formation.
Those results opened the possibility of developing a whole new class of drug therapies targeting cellular senescence as an anti-aging strategy, leading to Unity’s creation this year.
But it’s not just private investors who are bankrolling Mayo’s work – federal funders are also quite interested, partly because age-related illness such as osteoporosis are among the biggest contributors to the nation’s health care costs. The cellular senescence research program at Mayo is one of its most generously funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The effort has received more than $1.9 million in NIH funding this year.
Meanwhile, van Duersen’s Glenn Laboratories colleague, Dr. James Kirkland, in August co-published a study that for the first time demonstrated a causal relationship between senescent cells and an age-related illness – specifically, osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis in the elderly, which causes widespread pain, disability and immobility.
Currently it is treatable only though pain management, joint replacement and mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers. Overall in the United States, OA in 2005 affected 33.6 percent of those 65 older (some 12.4 million people). Its estimated costs due to hospital expenditures for total knee and hip joint replacements were $42 billion in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And just last month, van Duersen announced the results of yet another study linking senescent cells to an age-related malady – in this case, atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. In a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Science, he and his colleagues demonstrated that senescent cells drive plaque formation in mouse models of the disease.
Potential drug therapies that could effectively target common health issues of the elderly such as atherosclerosis and osteoporosis could be a true paradigm-shifter both in improving patients’ quality of life and reducing a massive health care cost center.