by Patrick Cox
September 5, 2018
Over the last few decades, progress in the biological sciences has been nothing short of astonishing. Huge advances in IT and electronics have enabled scientists to observe and understand biological processes down to the scale of a single molecule.
Until the 21st century, the scientific mainstream largely rejected the theory that aging was a treatable disorder. But as more and more secrets of biological life were revealed, attitudes about the ability to fix the mechanisms of aging started to change.
A lot of the credit for that goes to the world’s first major scientific research group dedicated to the study of aging, the California-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging, which was founded in the final year of the 20th century.
There is growing evidence that the process of aging itself is treatable and that it’s possible to slow down or prevent age-related disease. Among the many important scientific breakthroughs, the most compelling is probably the discovery that rapamycin, a natural compound, can extend and rejuvenate mammalian cells through the eponymously named mTOR pathways.
Much of the rapamycin/mTOR research came, in fact, from the Buck. Still, the institute is conservative in its terminology. The homepage of the organization’s website states, “We believe it is possible for people to enjoy their lives at 95 as much as they do at 25.”
In other words, the Buck focuses on extending healthspans, the time that people spend free of chronic diseases. There’s good reason to believe this is possible: certain longevity genes allow a small percentage of the population, often referred to as “super-agers,” to lead healthy, disease-free lives to 100 years or more. The Buck’s scientists think we’ll be able to make everyone a super-ager.
Conferring that condition on the overall population would not only be a humanitarian triumph, it would provide incredible benefits for the economy. Nir Barzilai’s Longevity Genes Project at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine is a good place to start if you’re interested in the topic.
Some scientists believe that turning people into super-agers is just the first step toward age reversal, which would propel healthspans beyond the current upper limit of approximately 120 years.
The Buck’s president and CEO, Dr. Eric Verdin, is more cautious, though. He avoids making predictions that are not yet supported by a compendium of solid, peer-reviewed evidence.
Verdin participated in the gerontology panel I moderated at Mauldin Economics’ last SIC conference, and I’m quite sure my terminology made him cringe more than once. In my defense, I’m a macroeconomist, not a biologist.
The difference between an economist and a traditional scientist is that good scientists try to limit their statements to what they know to be true. Economists make predictions. These are very different mindsets.
Investors are much more like macroeconomists than scientists. They observe trends, make predictions, and invest their money based on the probability that their models are correct. If their models reflect the underlying reality—what the ancient Greeks called the logos—they profit. If their models are wrong, they lose their money.
The difference between scientists and investors is critical to technological and economic progress. My favorite economist, Joseph Schumpeter, ascribed most human progress to the cooperation between these two diverse groups, which he called “innovators” and “risk-takers.”
I think this is obvious. Scientists enjoy more prestige than investors. Some even brag about being involved in “pure science” without commercial applicability. It’s been investors who risked losing their capital, however, who have funded nearly all of history’s greatest innovations and improvements in the human condition.
My favorite investor is Jim Mellon, the self-made British billionaire. A trained economist, he made his fortune by observing trends all over the world, formulating models, making predictions, and putting his own money at risk.
Mellon and I are on the same page regarding trends in anti-aging research as well as the existential need to lift the economic burdens imposed by societal aging. I actually wrote a small section of his book, Juvenescence: Investing in the Age of Longevity.
Mellon’s company, Juvenescence Ltd., invests in and helps manage longevity-related startups. To assist him in analyzing the science involved, he has an impressive team of successful biotech scientists and executives. Already, Juvenescence has invested in many of the best longevity research companies, including a $45 million stake in Michael West’s company AgeX.
Mellon is also in the prediction business. We both predict the emergence of biotechnologies that will extend healthy lives beyond the current 120-year maximum lifespan limit. Frankly, this doesn’t thrill established mainstream biogerontologists… and they have a point.
It’s more important to get healthspans up to super-ager levels than to start making people younger—especially for Baby Boomers, who need to survive until more radical longevity therapies come online.
This is not a zero-sum game, though. The product all these biotech companies plan to deliver is healthy life—the only product that has no diminishing marginal utility.
We need a range of medical and biotech options, which is why I’m so pleased that Dr. Verdin and the Buck Institute are now collaborating with Mellon and Juvenescence as well as Insilico Medicine, a leading AI company led by Canadian AI pioneer Alex Zhavoronkov.
Discovering New Pathways with Napa Therapeutics
On August 14, these three players announced the formation of Napa Therapeutics, a British Virgin Islands company, “to develop drugs against a novel aging-related target.” Let’s briefly break down that goal and the various participants’ role in the new company.
Juvenescence has considerable management expertise and funding sources that extend well beyond Mellon’s deep pockets. Verdin has been one of the most important scientists in the field of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) metabolism. Because of the press release, we know that Verdin has identified a unique target with age and disease-related implications.
The first paragraph is deceptively simple:
The Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Juvenescence, Ltd. and Insilico Medicine announced today that they have entered into a multi-year research collaboration. The collaboration aims to advance the understanding of a new molecular pathway potentially implicated in aging and age-related diseases and to discover and develop molecules to target this pathway.
“New molecular pathway” implies that nobody else has discovered or applied for patents covering this drug target. Together, NAD and the closely related field of mitochondrial science are the hottest field of longevity research today. Other scientists, including Nir Barzilai and Michael West, are also working in this arena.
Further into the press release, we see two critically connected elements:
Napa Therapeutics is based on groundbreaking research in NAD metabolism conducted in the lab of Eric Verdin, MD, President and CEO of the Buck Institute. The Verdin lab will collaborate with Napa, using Insilico’s drug development engine to speed the discovery of new compounds.
We know Verdin has identified a metabolic aging-related pathway, but finding a drug that can safely interact with that pathway is an extremely complicated task. Fortunately, that’s what Insilico’s AIs do. Equipped with all knowledge about molecular pathways and drug activities, they can identify patterns that would take thousands of human scientists centuries to analyze.
Though the Insilico AIs have access to all known drugs and compounds, they can also design brand new drugs. Those new compounds will have to be analyzed and tested, of course, and most will fail.
As Zhavoronkov’s AIs find and design drug candidates that could extend healthy life, the Buck Institute will be able to synthesize and analyze them in physical labs, feeding information back into the system as quickly as possible. If successful, milestone payments to Insilico Medicine could exceed $100 million, but revenues to Juvenescence and the Buck would likely be much greater.
At this point, Napa Therapeutics has issued no information about possible future IPOs. While Juvenescence has discussed a public offering in the future, it’s not yet tradable either. My point today is simply that biogerontology is accelerating rapidly.
The oldest and most established aging research institute in the world is now collaborating with one of the most aggressive and innovative AI companies in drug development, and both are funded by the preeminent longevity investment company.
Things are changing rapidly and the pace will continue to accelerate.
— How AI Plays Matchmaker for Big Science and Longevity Investors originally appeared at Mauldin Economics.