The longevity biotechnology industry is rapidly evolving with the amount of academic funding and venture investment increasing at the exponential pace. Over thirty longevity startups and approximately the same number of investors and funding organizations took part in the 10th Aging Research and Drug Discovery (ARDD) meeting in Copenhagen in 2023. Many of them sponsored the meeting. Recently, we introduced a free online course “Investing in Longevity” which is mostly a cautionary tale explaining the many failures and failed promises. We were very surprised when several hundred learners registered in a short period of time. Multiple learners indicated that they are planning to launch or spin off funds to invest in longevity biotechnology companies.
Looking at the recent media headlines it is easy to get the impression that aging research is a very new field that emerged over the past few years and scientists started making breakthroughs that will turn into the trillion-dollar companies. While it is true that we saw many notable advances in recent years, many similar headlines appeared over 50 years ago. Blood transfusions from young to old were pioneered back in the 1920s by Alexander Bogdanov and multiple books on senescence were published by Alex Comfort since 1950s. Longevity biotechnology is also not new. In his book, “Merchants of Immortality: Chasing The Dream of Human Life Extension” first published over twenty years ago in 2003, Stephen S. Hall reviewed a number of companies that attempted to take on aging directly. Some of the entrepreneurs profiled in that book, most notably Dr. Michael West the founder of Geron Corporation, are still active today. Geron was founded in 1990 with backing from notable biotechnology investors to go after aging with telomerase activation but changed its focus multiple times since then. In my opinion, at the time of the founding, Geron was the first company that fit the definition of a longevity biotechnology company. Jim Mellon, the co-founder of Juvenescence, also covered some of the more recent examples of longevity biotechnology companies in his book “Juvenescence: Investing in the Age of Longevity” published in 2017.
Every investor or biotechnology entrepreneur should consider studying the history of longevity biotechnology as it is filled with valuable lessons. I learned two main lessons from twenty years in this industry. First, if you do not establish a credible and sustainable business model that fits the current healthcare industry framework, you will fail. Second, no amount of startup funding will be sufficient to develop a drug targeting aging. You need to go after specific diseases to get the drug approved. Good news is that if the drug works in aging, it will work in some of the age-related diseases. But there are no quick hacks – you need to take the drug the entire nine yards through the clinical trials as a biotechnology company to develop a successful longevity enterprise.
The Longevity Biotechnology Association
The longevity biotechnology sector is a rapidly evolving field, with numerous companies striving to combat age-related diseases and enhance human healthspan. As this domain flourishes, the need for clear definitions and rigorous standards becomes paramount to distinguish genuine, evidence-based initiatives from mere commercial claims. In 2021, the Longevity Biotechnology Association (LBA) was formed to give this new industry a unified voice and a platform to develop a set of standards. The LBA is an organization with the stated mission of extending healthspan and enabling the prevention and cure of later life health conditions through research, education, and the promotion of geroscience. It points out the damage and expense that age-related diseases have done to the human population while promoting the research being done by longevity scientists. It focuses on four major areas: Education of media, government, and the public; collaboration; advising newcomers; and working with regulators.
Defining a Longevity Biotechnology Company
Recently, the LBA members published a research paper titled “Defining a Longevity Biotechnology Company” in the top biotech industry journal, Nature Biotechnology. Several companies and non-profit organizations contributed to this work including the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), Apollo Health Ventures, Bertram Endeavours, BioAge Labs, Cambrian Bio, Insilico Medicine, Juvenescence, Life Biosciences, Longevity Biotechnology Association, Longevity Vision Fund, Lygenesis, Oviva Therapeutics, Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School, Rejuveron, Retro Biosciences, and Tornado Therapeutics.
This perspective paper underscores the importance of defining longevity biotechnology companies (LBCs) based on their mission to target the fundamental mechanisms of aging. These LBCs aim to develop interventions that not only treat but potentially prevent multiple age-related chronic diseases. As the field grows, clear definitions, rigorous standards, and investor discernment will be pivotal in ensuring its transformative potential in healthcare.
A Checklist for Longevity Biotechnology Companies
Based on the paper and from the discussions with the co-authors, for a company to be classified as an LBC, it must meet specific criteria:
- A mission centered around increasing healthspan and tackling age-related diseases.
- A drug discovery approach grounded in strong scientific evidence.
- Conducting rigorous clinical trials, including randomized controlled double-blinded studies.
- Products or interventions that test the geroscience hypothesis.
To provide a deeper insight into this paper, I asked several authors of the paper including Risa Starr, Executive Director of the Longevity Biotechnology Association (LBA), James Payer, CEO of Cambrian BioPharma, and Dr. Kristen Fortney, CEO of BioAge to share their insights.
Central to the ethos of an LBC is its commitment to preventing or reversing age-related diseases and extending the healthspan of individuals. Risa Starr elucidates, “An LBC has a mission of preventing or reversing age-related disease and extending healthspan, uses a strong evidence base to prevent or reverse age-related diseases, is conducting sufficiently powered randomized controlled double-blinded studies, and has a product/products in which the intervention will test the geroscience hypothesis.”
Dr. Kristen Fortney adds depth to this definition, stating, “A longevity biotechnology company is focused on developing interventions that target the biological drivers of aging to prevent, delay, or treat age-related disease.”
James Peyer of Cambrian Biosciences further elaborates, “A longevity biotech company is one of a new class of biotechs that are developing drugs that target the causes of disease at the cellular level. Processes that break down naturally as we age but could be restored with the right intervention.”
The Imperative of a Distinct Definition
The realm of longevity biotechnology is vast and varied, with numerous products and interventions touting longevity benefits. However, not all are anchored in rigorous scientific evidence or possess the potential to significantly impact human healthspan. Starr underscores the gravity of a precise LBC definition, asserting, “The definition is important to set up legitimacy and guardrails in the geroscience field.”
Echoing this sentiment, Dr. Fortney emphasizes, “Achieving a consensus definition of longevity biotechnology companies will help to align the sector around a framework for advancing pioneering medicines with transformative potential.”
James Peyer further highlights the unique position of LBCs, stating, “LBCs have an important long-term goal not shared by the rest of the biopharma industry, the possibility of using new medicines not just to treat disease, but to keep people healthy. That goal may require different pathways for drug development, different business models, and even different interactions with governments and regulators.”
Guidance for Investors in the Longevity Biotechnology Domain
With increasing investment interest in this sector, it’s paramount for investors to discern what to prioritize in potential LBCs. Beyond the expertise of the founding team, Starr offers guidance for investors, suggesting they “evaluate the premise that the science is based on, other developments in the field, whether the company has a promising product pipeline, patents, talented management, and partnerships, and of course, the company’s cash position and financials.”
Dr. Fortney advises investors to “focus on two key areas beyond the founding team: the quality of the translational science and the clinical development strategy.”
James Peyer provides additional insights, emphasizing that investors should consider “the application of the technology to a clear disease indication today, allowing the medicine to reach the market after being tested for safety and efficacy, and the ability of the intervention to not only treat but also prevent disease.”
As the longevity biotechnology landscape continues to expand, it’s crucial for stakeholders, from investors to researchers, to have a clear understanding of what truly constitutes a longevity biotechnology company (LBC). The guidelines and insights provided in the paper, coupled with the insights of industry leaders, offer a roadmap to navigate this burgeoning field. By adhering to the outlined criteria, companies can ensure they are genuinely contributing to the noble goal of enhancing human healthspan. Furthermore, as investment and interest surge in this domain, it’s imperative to remember the lessons of the past, ensuring that the pursuit of longevity remains grounded in rigorous science and genuine therapeutic potential. The future of longevity biotechnology holds immense promise, and with continued collaboration, research, and adherence to standards, the industry is poised to make groundbreaking strides in the realm of aging and healthspan extension.