There are two activities in medical science in which both the academic research community and clinical development industry are truly terrible at achieving results, or indeed even at getting started at all. The first is transfer of programs from academia to industry. The renowned valley of death in the development of new medical biotechnologies is very real; so very many programs languish undeveloped simply because neither side can effectively coordinate with the other. The second is the testing of synergies between multiple therapies that are applied at the same time to the same patient for the treatment of the same condition. We live in a world in which age-related conditions are the result of multiple distinct contributing mechanisms, so why is it that the exploration and application of combined therapies targeting separate mechanisms is such a rare occurrence?
Firstly, different therapies tend to be owned by different groups (companies or universities) who have only limited incentives to collaborate with one another. Because the biotech field is governed in a very heavy-handed way by intellectual property and other forms of government regulation, setting up a collaboration is a costly matter. Thus in a world in which the expectation is that few efforts will be successful, as is the case for most initiatives in medical science, there is an unwillingness to explore. Secondly, the regulatory process for approval is very, very costly. Taking a candidate drug through to phase III trial success is at least a $150M proposition, and usually more. Companies do all they can to make clinical trials as simple as possible, and there is no incentive to roll the dice on a collaborative trial that depends on another drug outside the control of the company in question.
And yet, aging and all age-related diseases are the consequence of multiple underlying forms of molecular damage. They will require multiple very different therapies to achieve complete reversal or prevention. The perverse incentives in medical regulation and intellectual property are acting to close off the most promising strategy for the treatment of aging, which is to tackle all of its varied causes concurrently. Something must change here. As Aubrey de Grey points out in the short interview below, this is the next frontier for patient advocacy. Now that the first rejuvenation therapies are being actively developed, using them together is a logical next step.
Aubrey is a plain-speaking biomedical gerontologist who is committed to combating the aging process. We started by asking him about what he was up to at the moment.
SENS Research Foundation suffered a fair amount of slowdown as a result of the pandemic, but we’re picking up now. I think the most exciting thing we’re doing is continuing to strengthen the pipeline between the really early-stage translational work we do at SENS and the “just investable” stage work pursued by startups in our space, including our own spinouts. Basically, the appetite of some investors is increasingly emphasising projects that are so early that they would historically be viewed as pre-competitive; that boundary is now becoming very blurred.
What isn’t getting sufficient exposure?
I would say that the single biggest elephant in the room is the simultaneous administration of multiple therapies. It is subliminally understood that damage repair is the future of longevity medicine, and also that the damage repair paradigm is inescapably a divide-and-conquer one that will entail combination therapies, but the medical industry is really not set up to develop and promote that way of working. At some point that has to change, and I’m hopeful that investors at the more courageous end of the spectrum will soon find ways to start that process in earnest.
Our survey found that most investors appear to prefer seed-to-early-stage investing, have you found this to be case in your networks?
Absolutely. At this point I don’t see how things could be otherwise, actually, because the investment opportunities consist almost entirely of startups, which in turn is because the underlying technologies are so new.
We also saw that senolytics are a very popular category for investors – are you seeing an increased appetite from investors?
I do see that tendency too, and it’s not surprising to me, because senolytics have two huge things going for them: they are bona fide rejuvenators (i.e. they repair a type of aging damage rather than just slowing down its accumulation), which is much more exciting to people old enough to have money to invest, and they are only just now going into clinical trials and showing impressive results, so they are opportunities for first movers.