Juvenescence Creates AI-Focused Approach to Longevity
Conan the Barbarian is one of those movies that can teach you a lot about life and death. The philosopher-king of Cimmeria once reflected about what was best in life: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.” Poetry on par with the Iliad. A more poignant moment comes when the ghost of his bad-ass warrior babe returns to save his life at a pivotal moment of battle, asking him, “Do you want to live forever?” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting career somehow survived for decades after that performance. But the question of extending life beyond its limitations remains. The pursuit of longevity therapies – just the stuff of cerebral sci-fi movies until a few years ago – is being accelerated thanks to artificial intelligence. One company behind the melding of machine learning and immortality is Juvenescence.
AI at the Forefront of Longevity Research
If the name sounds familiar that’s because the British biotechnology company raised a $100 million Series B last month, mainly among its deep-pocketed founders and some equally well-heeled entrepreneurs from the software and fintech industries. That brings total funding in the last 18 months to $165 million, with a valuation of $500 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Juvenescence doesn’t put that money toward its own research but into a pipeline of joint ventures and longevity-focused startups. Many of these companies appear heavily invested in deploying AI technologies to discover and develop therapies that address aging-related diseases or even some of the underlying causes of the cellular born-to-die cycle.
At the top of the class is an even more familiar name: Insilico Medicine, an AI drug discovery startup out of Maryland that we included in our top 10 list of longevity companies in August. Insilico made headlines last week when it announced that it had designed and validated a drug candidate to inhibit fibrosis, which is basically the build up of scar tissue on organs like the lungs or liver. The big news is that they did it in about 45 days, which is about 15 times faster than the biggest pharmaceutical companies can accomplish. (We’ll dive deeper into Insilico in a future interview with founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov.)
Update 09/09/19: Insilico Medicine has raised $37 million in Series B funding to commercialize its validated generative chemistry and target identification technology. This brings the company’s total funding to $51.3 million to date.
Juvenescence Joint Ventures
Juvenescence isn’t just a direct investor behind Insilico. The two companies created a joint venture in 2017 called Generait Pharmaceuticals (formerly Juvenescence AI). Basically, Generait Pharmaceuticals gets first dibs on any five compounds per year that Insilico’s AI drug discovery platform develops. Last year, the joint venture announced its first molecular target less than six months into the deal, though details were light, with a press release saying the team would test the new compound “for a specific age-associated disease area.”
Another joint venture between Juvenescence and Insilico, which also includes the nonprofit Buck Institute for Research on Aging, is Napa Therapeutics. Juvenescence put $3 million into the company in August 2018. Napa Therapeutics is focused on commercializing the research of Eric Verdin, who also happens to be the president and CEO of the Buck Institute. Verdin’s lab has been involved in researching how to boost the levels of an oxidized compound called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) that is involved in getting the power plant of the cell called the mitochondria revved up. Basically, it’s about helping get metabolism, which obviously slows as we age, back up to speed again.
Incidentally, Zhavoronkov at Insilico also holds an adjunct position at the Buck Institute, which is also partnered with Juvenescence on another joint venture called BHB Therapeutics for $3 million. You’ve probably heard of the ketogenic (or, keto, for short) diet that emphasizes fats over carbohydrates in order to induce a state of ketosis, where the body burns fats instead of carbs. Ketogenesis spurs the creation of anti-inflammatory ketone bodies by the liver. The company gets its name from the ketone body that it is targeting: beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB). Researchers at the Buck Institute and elsewhere have found that BHB helps the body respond to stress, and some studies suggest long-term exposure to ketone bodies in a keto diet could extend lifespan.
Last year, Juvenescence also entered into a joint venture with Toronto-based NetraMark, an AI company that specializes in analyzing data from failed clinical drug trials that might reveal if a therapy could work on a smaller subset of patients. The 50-50 partnership is called NetraPharma and is led by some of the same leadership team that helms Juvenescence. NetraMark founder Joseph Geraci explained in an interview that his company’s technology, NetraAI, can provide “new definitions of the disorders that make up the aging complex syndrome.” In other words, machine learning could figure out new pathways to combat age-related diseases using existing clinical data as a starting point.
Finally, there is FoxBio, a joint venture between a Syracuse, New York area company called Antoxerene and Juvenescence, which kicked in $10 million to jumpstart the 2018 partnership. Antoxerene itself is one of about a half-dozen subsidiaries of Ichor Therapeutics, a startup founded in 2013 that we profiled in our article on nine regenerative medicine companies. This branch of the Juvenescence
empire portfolio is focused on an area known as senolytics. Senescent cells are cells that, as we age, have stopped dividing, but that sometimes continue to secrete inflammatory molecules that damage nearby cells and tissues, leading to disease and an earlier death. FoxBio will develop Antoxerene’s collection of small molecules that target senescent cells.
Investments by Juvenescence
When Juvenescence isn’t wheeling and dealing new joint ventures, it is investing its growing war chest on launching or supporting anti-aging companies. We already told you about AgeX Therapeutics in our top 10 longevity companies article, but here are three more working on various life extension technologies with backing from Juvenescence.
Possibly the most intriguing of the bunch is a spinout from the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. LyGenesis raised a $3 million Series A from Juvenescence last year. Forget about 3D printing new organs. LyGenesis claims it has the technical know-how to regrow functioning organs like the liver using the patient’s own lymph nodes as a bioreactor. One liver donor, for instance, could potentially treat dozens of patients, while major surgery would be replaced with an outpatient procedure to transplant donor cells. The company is gearing up for its first human trials after success on animal models:
First up: Liver regeneration to help patients with end-stage liver disease.
In May, Juvenescence launched a new company called Souvien Therapeutics with $3.5 million based on the research of Li-Huei Tsai, the director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. Souvien will create drugs to treat “neurodegenerative diseases by targeting the epigenetic underpinnings of neurodegeneration.” In English, that means the company will develop treatments that target gene expression for age-related conditions like dementia. For example, in previous research led by Tsai, her team found that memory problems from Alzheimer’s disease stemmed from an overactive enzyme that shuts off genes related to neuron communication. When the researchers blocked the enzyme, they “reawakened” some of the neurons and restored cognitive function – in mice.
Juvenescence pledged $6.5 million in equity financing back in March to Massachusetts-based BYOMass, a startup founded in 2017 by a former Pfizer executive. BYOMass is “focused on central control of metabolism in the context of aging and age-related diseases.” That’s about all of the details we could find, except for one bit of news that BYOMass will target the “brain and how it controls metabolism, more specifically how the hypothalamus and the brain stem perform … to help maintain food intake, body weight and blood pressure.” The company expects to begin animal experiments later this year. Just don’t tell PETA.
You might have noticed that the paint is still drying on most of these new companies and joint ventures, as Juvenescence itself has only been around since 2016. The face of the company is British billionaire Jim Mellon, an ex-fund manager who like many of the nouveau riche has found that being insanely wealthy is pretty awesome and living as long as possible to enjoy that fortune would also be pretty awesome. He and his four other co-founders are placing bets across the longevity spectrum – in other words, diversifying – and literally trying to jump start a whole life-extension industry. Juvenescence reportedly holds controlling interests in both LyGenesis and AgeX, as well as an 11 percent stake in Insilico, in addition to its ownership in all of the other joint ventures.
Mellon and company obviously believe that technologies like artificial intelligence will be key to that future. If companies like Insilico Medicine can churn out potential therapies in less than two months, drug discovery and development can become not only faster but much cheaper thanks to automation. The question is whether it will lead to breakthrough therapies. Based on how quickly Juvenescence has moved thus far, the answers may come sooner than later.