Thoughts on the Longevity Therapeutics Conference, January 2019

I attended the small Longevity Therapeutics conference in San Francisco last week, there to talk a little about the work taking place at Repair Biotechnologies. This was another first conference of a forthcoming series, but, unlike most of the prior conferences in our community, this was organized by Hanson-Wade, a company that specializes in hosting conferences. The company finds areas of growing interest in business and science, sets up conferences, and tries to make a business out of that process. It is a sign of growth that companies of this nature are arriving in our community to launch conferences relating to the development of treatments to enhance longevity and slow or reverse aging. Greater funding is flowing, more people are participating, and more outsiders are paying attention.

The other attendees were largely a mix of researchers, entrepreneurs, businesspeople from larger companies, and individuals in the process of transition from one of those categories to another. As one researcher-soon-to-be-entrepreneur I spoke to noted, the tone of the conference was one of optimism, of the desire to make progress towards concrete benefits for patients - and this is quite different to what one might find at scientific community events. I think that this is a good thing. The drive and the vision is necessary for progress to occur. Despite the tremendous influx of capital and interest into the field of longevity science and development of therapies to treat aging, it remains a backwater of development, underfunded by several orders of magnitude in comparison to its importance and potential.

As one might expect, there was a sizable senolytics contingent at the conference to discuss their various approaches and the state of the field. This is an exciting topic, and we're going to see a big jump in both the number of companies and potential senolytic therapies and mechanisms over the next year. It is already the case that when I turn up at one of these events, there is a company or two I hadn't heard of, involved in some form of senolytics development I was unaware of. This growth will be coupled with results from the first human trials over the next year, hopefully repeating the robust, positive results on a range of age-related diseases achieved in mice in recent years. For better or worse, senolytics will be the flagship of the rejuvenation biotechnology community for the next decade: as senolytics succeed, there will be more interest for the development of other rejuvenation therapies; as any specific company or development program stumbles, it will harm the industry as a whole.

Beyond senolytics, the topics varied widely, from fundamental science related to known drugs (such as metformin or mTOR inhibitors) that slow aging to some degree, to more recently discovered mechanisms yet to produce therapies, such as splicing factor changes in older individuals, to efforts on biomarker development that are aimed at making biomarkers of aging practical to use in evaluation of therapies. The machine learning contingent had their representatives as well. As I've mentioned in the past, a sizable fraction of present investment in the field of therapeutics for aging relates to the use of machine learning methodologies to improve the efficiency of small molecule drug discovery programs. The larger investors seem most interested in setting up an initial presence in the field that is based on producing large numbers of small molecule drug candidates: new senolytics, new mTOR inhibitors, and the like.

Mixed in with these topics were presentations from a number of noteworthy individuals from the field presenting; people from Unity Biotechnology and Life Biosciences, for example, and well known scientists such as Judith Campisi and Aubrey de Grey. A wide range of views on aging and the prospects for development were represented, from people who see metformin as ambitious new technology, and adding a few years to be the greatest that can be achieved in the near future, to people who wish to see true rejuvenation biotechnology after the SENS model realized, and would aim at decades and more added to the human life span.

A topic that came up in several discussions is the challenge (the present failure) of moving basic science to the clinic. All of the players in this process do things poorly: the scientists are bad at packaging up research for commercialization; the funding entities and universities fail to identify, cultivate, and fund truly valuable, novel work; the venture industry and entrepreneurs fail to reach into the research community in any systemic way to identify new technologies that can be development. The Life Biosciences representative argued that their way of doing things is a model that can help to address this problem, and it may well be a good attempt, even given my disagreement with the value of some of the programs they have chosen to support. I am given to think the onus largely falls on the venture and corporate world to do this work, as they have the resources and the will.

On the whole, I think this event worked well. The conference organizers profit, and people came to find their own benefits via networking and discussion of the state of the field. I met some new faces, and had a chance to pitch the primacy of damage repair as an approach to aging. We will see more of this in the years ahead, as the community continues to grow rapidly, driven by clinical success in the first attempts at generating rejuvenation in human patients.