I recently attended the second Undoing Aging conference in Berlin, the big central conference for our long-standing - and recently greatly expanded - community of researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and numerous supporters, all engaged in some way in the great project of building the technologies needed for human rejuvenation. This year the event was significantly bigger than last year. The conference was hosted by the Forever Healthy Foundation and the SENS Research Foundation, and is in many ways a platform for spreading and building upon the views of Aubrey de Grey and Michael Greve on aging and how it should be tackled by the medical research and development community. That means addressing the fundamental causes of aging, those outlined in the SENS rejuvenation research programs.
Interestingly, there was a strong Russian contingent present, researchers, venture capitalists, and advocates. They don't make it out to the US quite so often. I finally met Mikhail Batin, one of the figures behind the Science for Life Extension Foundation and Open Longevity initiatives, whose writing I have noted over the years. I made a $50 bet with him that senolytics either will or won't be shown to finally work this year. You can probably guess which side of that wager I took. Like many in the Russian longevity community, he perhaps feels that removal of senescent cells is too simple a strategy in the face of the metabolic complexity of aging. It is a little too trite to say that Russians tend towards a programmed aging viewpoint, but it isn't entirely incorrect. Targeting points of comparative simplicity, the causes of aging, is of course the SENS rejuvenation research strategy - but as this exchange illustrates, we advocates have yet to convince everyone, even in the community, and even given the stunning technical successes in senolytic studies of recent years.
Among the Russian investors, Andrey Fomenko of IVAO made an appearance to chat to some of the entrepreneurs present, such as Doug Ethell of Leucadia Therapeutics and the Oisin Biotechnologies team. Fomenko is worthy of note here, distinct from several other Russian venture capital folk, for setting up the Eternal Youth Fund, somewhat analogous to some of the funds in the English language world, such as the Longevity Fund or Juvenescence. Jim Mellon of Juvenescence was also present at the conference, of course, with rarely a spare moment to say hello between being pitched on one project for another. Given that he has funded a good fraction of the companies in the rejuvenation biotechnology space at this point in time, this will probably be a good summary of his daily experience for the next decade or so. This is a vigorous growth market.
You'll have to forgive me for providing few details as to what was actually presented at Undoing Aging, either in posters or the presentations. The science progresses, but these days I am an entrepreneur with my own biotech company working on methods of rejuvenation, and so when I go to conferences it is now the case that I am no longer able to listen to all that many of the presentations. Instead I must pitch investors and network relentlessly. Fortunately, the presentations were recorded, including my outline of how things are going at Repair Biotechnologies with our preclinical work on thymic rejuvenation and reversal of atherosclerosis, and they will be uploaded to YouTube once the technical folk are done with them.
Taken as a whole, a great deal of interesting research and development was announced at the conference, both by startup companies and research groups. Undoing Aging is very much the event to be presenting at if one wants to gain attention for one's work. Like the upcoming July Ending Age-Related Diseases conference organized by LEAF in New York City, this is a meeting of people with funds and the people who can deploy those funds to make progress towards the goal of the medical control of aging. Transactions take place, and a great deal of new funding is entering this space. Numerous organizations and high net worth individuals are setting up funds devoted to the longevity industry, following Juvenescence, Life Biosciences, and the like, or changing their focus to include this novel area of biotechnology as it expands rapidly. A tipping point has passed, and there is now more than enough seed stage funding out there for anyone with a credible project and team.
One of the topics of discussion that came up several times, with a number of different people, quite independently of one another, is that given the amount of time we advocates spend trying to educate entrepreneurs and investors new to the field, we should produce a bible on how to enter the longevity space, either to start a company, or to fund a company. A good dozen people in our core community, those who have been involved for a decade or more, have had that experience over the past few years, so the memories are still fresh. We don't have enough entrepreneurs in the present community to tackle even a tiny fraction of all the rejuvenation biotechnology projects that could proceed to preclinical development in a startup, and thus these entrepreneurs must arrive from somewhere, comparatively ignorant. We want them to take up effective projects based on the SENS view of aging, and not be sidetracked into marginal work.
Equally, on the investment side of the house, investors in any field have traditionally had the challenge of identifying high expectation value projects, when the differences between great, merely good, and useless are extremely technical. When it comes to treating aging as a medical condition, there is an enormous chasm between the benefits that might be realized through traditional small molecule tinkering with metabolism (e.g. calorie restriction mimetics) and new approaches that actually reverse the causes of aging (e.g. senolytics). The latter are reliable, have large effects, and progress is comparatively easy. The former are unreliable, have marginal effects, and progress is challenging and expensive. It can take some time to learn enough to be able to determine which of these categories any given therapy falls into.
Thus we, the advocates, definitely need to step up and become more organized. We can't reach out one by one with a personal connection to every investor and entrepreneur, and carry out an intervention to prevent more marginal initiatives from launching. That doesn't scale. What we can do is establish a baseline of education and common sense regarding the field, and spread that understanding far and wide. We can thus help newcomers enter the community with enough knowledge to further educate themselves, and to make more sensible choices along the way regarding the projects they undertake.
Of the interesting news from the conference, the SENS Research Foundation is (finally) directly spinning out a for-profit company, rather than only being more indirectly involved in the process of commercializing SENS-related biotechnology. The initiative involves an interesting take on how to get rid of the 7-ketocholesterol that is an important cause of atherosclerosis, spurring the condition by turning macrophages into inflammatory foam cells. The SENS Research Foundation researchers have found a class of molecule that seems fairly innocuous in terms of side-effects and is willing to bind to 7-ketocholesterol and remove it from cells. We will no doubt be hearing more on this later, as the project progresses beyond the setup phase and into properly running as a business and raising venture funding.
It also seems that the Forever Healthy Foundation crowd have the ambition to establish an aging research institution for Berlin after the model of the Buck Institute in California, to work towards making the city a center for aging research as well as all the other items it is famed for. This is a constructive ambition, and the people involved have the connections and the resources to make it happen, given enough time. I look forward to seeing this project make progress. Per a discussion with the Forever Health Foundation principles at the end of the conference, the third Undoing Aging conference next year should prove to be yet bigger than this year's. The event has outgrown the present venue quite handily, and was forced to turn people away in the final days of registration. These are all signs of success, I hope. Still, it is now up to all of those working on therapies and the foundations of therapies to take the new opportunities for funding, and use that funding make the biotechnologies of repair and rejuvenation a reality. Convincing the investors and philanthropists of the world to fund these goals is just step one in the process.