The whispers of late have had it that UNITY Biotechnology was out raising a large round of venture funding, and their latest press release shows that this was indeed the case. The company, as you might recall, is arguably the more mainstream of the current batch of startups targeting the clearance of senescent cells as a rejuvenation therapy. The others include Oisin Biotechnologies, SIWA Therapeutics, and Everon Biosciences, all with different technical approaches to the challenge. UNITY Biotechnology is characterized by a set of high profile relationships with noted laboratories, venture groups, and big names in the field, and, based on the deals they are doing, appear to be focused on building a fairly standard drug development pipeline: repurposing of apoptosis-inducing drug candidates from the cancer research community to clear senescent cells, something that is being demonstrated with various drug classes by a range of research groups of late. Senescent cells are primed to apoptosis, so a nudge in that direction provided to all cells in the body will have little to no effect on normal cells, but tip a fair proportion of senescent cells into self-destruction. Thus the UNITY Biotechnology principals might be said to be following the standard playbook to build the profile of a hot new drug company chasing a hot new opportunity, and clearly they are doing it fairly well so far.
UNITY Biotechnology, Inc. (“UNITY”), a privately held biotechnology company creating therapeutics that prevent, halt, or reverse numerous diseases of aging, today announced the closing of a $116 million Series B financing. The UNITY Series B financing ranks among the largest private financings in biotech history and features new investments from longtime life science investors ARCH Venture Partners, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Partner Fund Management, and Venrock. Other investors include Bezos Expeditions (the investment vehicle of Jeff Bezos) and existing investors WuXi PharmaTech and Mayo Clinic Ventures. Proceeds from this financing will be used to expand ongoing research programs in cellular senescence and advance the first preclinical programs into human trials.
The financing announcement follows the publication of research that further demonstrates the central role of senescent cells in disease. The paper, written by UNITY co-founders Judith Campisi and Jan van Deursen and published today, describes the central role of senescent cells in atherosclerotic disease and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells holds the promise of treating atherosclerosis in humans. In animal models of both early and late disease, the authors show that selective elimination of senescent cells inhibits the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, reduces inflammation, and alters the structural characteristics of plaque such that higher-risk “unstable” lesions take on the structural features of lower-risk “stable” lesions. “This newly published work adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of cellular senescence in aging and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells is a promising therapeutic paradigm to treat diseases of aging and extend healthspan. We believe that we have line of sight to slow, halt, or even reverse numerous diseases of aging, and we look forward to starting clinical trials with our first drug candidates in the near future.”
So this, I think, bodes very well for the next few years of rejuvenation research. It indicates that at least some of the biotechnology venture community understands the likely true size of the market for rejuvenation therapies, meaning every human being much over the age of 30. It also demonstrates that there is a lot of for-profit money out there for people with credible paths to therapies to treat the causes of aging. It remains frustrating, of course, that it is very challenging to raise sufficient non-profit funds to push existing research in progress to the point at which companies can launch. This is a problem throughout the medical research and development community, but it is especially pronrounced when it comes to aging. The SENS view of damage repair, which has long incorporated senescent cell clearance, is an even tinier and harder sell within the aging research portfolio – but one has to hope that funding events like this will go some way to turn that around.
From the perspective of being an investor in Oisin Biotechnologies, I have to say that this large and very visible flag planted out there by the UNITY team is very welcome. The Oisin team should be able to write their own ticket for their next round of fundraising, given that the gene therapy technology they are working on has every appearance of being a superior option in comparison to the use of apoptosis-inducing drugs: more powerful, more configurable, and more adaptable. When you are competing in a new marketplace, there is no such thing as too much validation. The existence of well-regarded, well-funded competitors is just about the best sort of validation possible. Well-funded competitors who put out peer-reviewed studies on a regular basis to show that the high-level approach you and they are both taking works really well is just icing on the cake. Everyone should have it so easy. So let the games commence! Competition always drives faster progress. Whether or not I had skin in this game, it would still be exciting news. The development of rejuvenation therapies is a game in which we all win together, when new treatments come to the clinic, or we all lose together, because that doesn’t happen fast enough. We can and should all of us be cheering on all of the competitors in this race. The quality and availability of the outcome is all that really matters in the long term. Money comes and goes, but life and health is something to be taken much more seriously.
Now with all of that said, one interesting item to ponder in connection to this round of funding for UNITY is the degree to which it reflects the prospects for cancer therapies rather than the prospects for rejuvenation in the eyes of the funding organizations. In other words, am I being overly optimistic in reading this as a greater understanding of the potential for rejuvenation research in the eyes of the venture community? It might be the case that the portions of the venture community involved here understand the market for working cancer drugs pretty well, and consider that worth investing in, with the possibility of human rejuvenation as an added bonus, but not one that is valued appropriately in their minds. Consider that UNITY Biotechnology has partnered with a noted cancer therapeutics company, and that the use of drugs to inducing apoptosis is a fairly well established approach to building cancer treatments. That is in fact why there even exists a range of apoptosis-inducing drugs and drug candidates for those interested in building senescent cell clearance therapies to pick through. Further, the presence of large numbers of senescent cells does in fact drive cancer, and modulating their effects (or removing them) to temper cancer progress is a topic under exploration in the cancer research community. So a wager on a new vision, or a wager on the present market? It is something to think about.