The newly-created Longevity Science Foundation aims to extend the human lifespan to more than 120 years by channeling over €860M ($1B) into early-stage geroscience research in the next decade. Experts say that’s a worthy if complex goal.
Based in Zug, Switzerland, the Longevity Science Foundation will prioritize four areas of research: personalized medicine, therapeutics, artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive diagnostics. The foundation accepts applications from any organization with a focus on funding early-stage academic research into the process of aging, known as geroscience. The mission for the projects it funds is to make a difference in people’s lives within five years.
The foundation has already raised an undisclosed amount to fund an initial round of projects and will continue raising the rest of its €860M ($1B) target over the next 10 years. Its setup expenses were covered by founders of LongeVC, a Swiss venture capital fund focused on the anti-aging niche. The Longevity Science Foundation board includes members of LongeVC in addition to research organizations including the National University of Singapore and Human Longevity in the US.
The goals of the foundation are ambitious, if the past decade or so in European biotech, fraught with delays and under-fulfilled promise in geroscience, is any indication. At the same time, they fit neatly into industry projections for the next decade, where sectors such as AI, gene therapy, and personalized medicine feature prominently.
The foundation is bent on taking head-on some of the major financing bottlenecks of translating geroscience research from the lab into clinical-stage anti-aging strategies, which is widely seen as a major boost for the thorny science of aging.
“After spending five years in this sector it is so exciting to see substantial capital finally coming in to move the science forward,” Greg Bailey, the CEO of the Dublin-based geroscience biotech Juvenescence, told me. “This amount of capital and the quality of the individuals that are involved should be transformative to the trajectory of the science to modify aging.”
The niche as a whole has had a bumpy ride in recent years. One example is the US company Unity Biotechnology, which is still reeling from a phase II clinical trial failure last year of its small molecule drug designed to treat osteoarthritis.
Unity’s drug targeted the accumulation of senescent cells, which stop being able to perform their function with age and can drag entire organs and body systems down with them. The phase II setback called into question the viability of targeting senescent cells, though in July this year, the company touted promising phase I results of a similar drug for the treatment of age-related blindness conditions.
Investor interest in geroscience research has more broadly been hampered by the lack of a unified theory that explains all the different symptoms and conditions that characterize aging. Despite numerous attempts to identify biomarkers that can predict aging in recent years, no clear answer exists even to the question of whether aging is a disease or a catch-all term that includes a number of different processes. Additionally, aging itself isn’t seen as an indication by major regulators including the EMA and FDA.
Other approaches to slowing down or reversing aging include repairing the chromosomes, which carry the genetic material of the cells; fixing the mitochondria, which are vital for cell metabolism; and replacing old tissue, especially by virtue of stem cell therapies. All these geroscience approaches carry potential risks as well as limitless promise.
“We’ve pivoted from a mitochondria-focused approach to cellular reprogramming, a powerful rejuvenation paradigm for cells,” said Daniel Ives, the CEO of the UK biotech Shift Bioscience.
“Cellular reprogramming is currently a ‘goldilocks’ rejuvenation approach: too little and you have no rejuvenation, too much and you risk cancer. Based on a novel application of machine learning, we’ve identified an opportunity to ‘tame’ cellular reprogramming and safely reset cells and tissues back to a youthful state.”
The Longevity Science Foundation aims to help scientists take on these issues by providing funds to early-stage researchers with no strings attached. It places a special emphasis on addressing inequalities: both in terms of patient access to cutting-edge treatments, and the access of scientists from diverse parts of the world and backgrounds to research funds.
“We know a key barrier to these advancements and one of the most significant challenges facing longevity research today is the lack of transparent, equity-free funding for early-stage discovery and research,” Garri Zmudze, a life sciences angel investor and the Executive Coordinator of the foundation, told me.
“That is why, in all projects awarded funding by the Foundation, the [intellectual property] will remain the property of its respective researchers and owners. Donors will not, at this time, receive a financial stake in the research or IP.”
The field, alongside many other medical niches, has seen an increase of investments in recent years. It also received a boost from a much-publicized trial of metformin, a diabetes drug that is also believed to have anti-aging properties. The TAME trial, which also aims to help discover reliable biomarkers for aging, is currently preparing to launch and will run for six years.
Many are hopeful that the Longevity Science Foundation, or at least geroscience research that comes out of the projects it awards, will help provide the next much-needed breakthrough.
“In the short term, market approval of the first drug with an anti-aging or rejuvenation mechanism for an age-linked disease would mark a major milestone for the field,” Ives said. “In the medium term, the development of a safe but powerful rejuvenative drug would catalyze the regulatory change required to enable the approval of drugs with a full ‘anti-aging’ or ‘rejuvenation’ label.”
12 Oct 2021: Correction made to a quote by Daniel Ives about cellular reprogramming.
Cover image via Anastasiia Slynko. Body text image via Shutterstock.