There is a point in the life of a young biotech company at which one traditionally appoints an established figure from industry as the CEO. Running a company that is in the public eye due to clinical trials and heading in the direction of an IPO requires a whole different set of skills than were needed for early growth and technical success in development programs. It also tends to be a sign of the changing balance of influence between founders, investors, and industry partners as development programs progress. This happened earlier in the year for Navitor Pharmaceuticals, one of a number of companies working on mTOR inhibitor therapies capable of modestly slowing the aging process.
Talking up one’s position is a part of the duties of an industry CEO: a good CEO is an advocate for the company, for the technology, for the industry. That is expected. I point out this commentary from the new Navitor CEO not for the expected content, but rather as an example of our present slow movement though an important tipping point in the great, many-threaded cultural conversation about aging and the prospects for treating aging as a medical condition. The message of the life science community, that aging can be slowed and reversed, is being taken up by industry and media. It is spreading broadly, and more rapidly than in past years.
In short, the goal of bringing aging under medical control is increasingly being taken seriously, finally, after more than twenty years of earnest advocacy and hard-fought, incremental progress in obtaining research funding. Now, the battle must turn to one of steering funding towards the better rather than the worse options for development. When people agree that the goal must be reached, it becomes very important to settle on the best possible strategy.
On that note, I don’t think that therapies that function via inhibition of mTOR, based as they are on modulation of dysfunctional metabolism without doing much to address the causes of that dysfunction, have anywhere near as large an upside, considered in terms of additional healthy years of life, as is the case for the SENS approaches to aging. SENS rejuvenation therapies are intended to repair the underlying damage that causes aging, while mTOR inhibition and similar approaches largely adjust harmful reactions to that damage. They are beneficial to some degree, particularly now that it is possible to separate the desirable and undesirable components of the early mTOR inhibitors such as rapamycin. Still, while modest gains are better than nothing, we should be aiming for large gains.
We finally are beginning to understand the biological basis of aging and age-related diseases, making the discovery of new therapies actionable for the first time. Aging and its underlying biological mechanisms are becoming recognized as a catalyst, if not the central catalyst, for a wide range of poorly treated prevalent diseases. This is a promising new area in science providing actionable insights with potential for tremendous impact on human healthspan.
I have been following the field of the biology of aging since the beginning of my career in science, more than thirty years, while working in targeted ways to find and advance new therapies in the areas of metabolic and cardiovascular disease. Recently, I became the CEO of a biotechnology company, Navitor Pharmaceuticals, that is squarely in this space and focused on leveraging new discoveries to target the activity of mTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin). In many ways, the progress in the field has reached a tipping point and has prompted me to reflect on the advancements.
Chronic conditions of aging are the major cost drivers for healthcare. There are some shocking statistics to be found regarding the cost of chronic conditions affecting our healthcare system. The multiple chronic conditions chartbook published in 2010 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality is a short and fascinating read. Almost half of all people aged 45-64, and 80% of those 65 and over, have multiple chronic conditions. 71 cents of every US healthcare dollar go to treating people with multiple chronic conditions. Just take a moment to think about that. First off, this is a huge portion of our healthcare budget. It’s not cancer. It’s not rare diseases. It’s not cosmetic or elective procedures. It’s chronic illnesses, primarily associated with aging.
Id you have one disorder that is commonly associated with aging, chances are you have another or will develop another one. Basically, it’s tough to get old. We all know that. But, now science is leading us to harness some fundamental mechanisms of aging. Two core aging mechanisms appear to have emerged as being accessible to new pharmacological intervention – the mechanistic target of rapamycin, or mTOR, and cellular senescence (which is wrapped up in mTOR as well). Drug development approaches using cellular senescence are emerging, and they are fascinating and worthy of attention. It’s an exciting time in the aging space, and hopefully one that yields important new medications capable of reducing the personal, societal, and financial burdens of chronic diseases.