“Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death”
Life expectancy roughly doubled over the 20th century, as we decreased the number of premature deaths. Antibiotics, sanitation facilities, vaccination programmes and reduced war and famine all played a major role, along with a host of other public health and social measures. Now, many people in developing countries can expect to live out their entire lifespan, roughly 90 years- but must we stop there, at the so-called ‘natural limit of life?’
Today, we will be taking a look at the newest craze in pharmaceuticals, longevity therapies. Unity Biotechnology, founded in 2009, is a San Francisco based biotechnology firm, and one of the leaders in this field.
Central to longevity studies is the idea that the human body has no ‘expiry date.’ ‘Death due to old age’ should truly be called ‘death by diseases of ageing,’ caused by illnesses for which age is a major risk factor.
A number of diseases become more common over the lifespan:
- By the age of 80, there is a 30% chance of having received a cancer diagnosis over your lifetime.
- 75% of over 60’s are obese and concurrently suffer from cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
- 40% of over 60’s have metabolic syndrome.
- Other chronic conditions, such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, loss of eyesight and hearing are hugely common.
The effect of this is that at the end of the human lifespan, the accumulated damage results in organ failure, heart failure, or susceptibility to illnesses such as pneumonia, the ultimate causes of death.
SCIENCE GEEKS ONLY: There are a number of theories about which cellular processes are actually responsible, but the ‘free radical theory’ has been very popular; this theory stipulates that ageing is due to down-regulation of our antioxidant defence system over time, with 4 key underlying processes:
- A greater number of errors during cellular reproduction, resulting in non-functional cells and suboptimal organ function
- Shortening of DNA results in programmed cell death- our bodies cannot generate new cells at the same rate as cells are being lost
- Down-regulation of antioxidant enzymes like Superoxide dismutase makes antioxidant defences less efficient with age.
- Senescent cells, which have reached their replication limit but haven’t been removed by the body, release inflammatory molecules causing widespread system damage.
A number of treatments have shown the potential to slow down the ageing process, such as calorie restriction and the immunosuppressant Everolimus.
Unity Biotechnology is targeting process 4, senescent cell-based inflammation. The use of drugs which specifically target senescent cells, or ‘senolytics,’ has been supported by recent scientific publications, which can be viewed in additional reading.
WHO IS IN CHARGE:
As Unity Biotechnology proudly announces on their website, their team have collectively moved 91 therapeutic candidates into clinical trials, and are responsible for the creation of 13 FDA approved medicines.
The company is led by PhD and serial bio-entrepreneur Nathaniel ‘Ned’ David, who has founded four other successful Biotech firms. He is supported by a stellar cast, including Keith Leonard, former General Manager of Amgen Europe, and Jamie Dananberg, Executive Vice President of Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Around the executives is an even broader network of academics, entrepreneurs and investors.
Given that start-up investment is high risk, having a management and research team of this calibre adds considerable value to the firm, as it dramatically increases the firms’ chances of being able to produce, licence, manufacture and distribute a drug in the future.
MARKET AND COMPETITORS:
Over the years, some innovations within medicine have evolved from remedying the ill, to improving the healthy. Rhinoplasty enjoyed its’ greatest period of development as an academic discipline during wartime periods for injured socials, and ‘nose-jobs’ are now commonplace for people with no nasal disability. Sildenafil, or Viagra, was developed as a drug to treat hypertension, but its effects on sexual performance are far better known.
Unity Biotechnology is currently developing drugs to combat specific ailments, such as atherosclerosis and chronic kidney disease. We can predict that in time, senolytics will become a preventative medicine, taken by all those who wish to avoid the negative physiological consequences of ageing. The firm could charge a minimal amount per drug and still make staggering profits, because the entire developed world represents a potential market for these life-extending drugs.
It is worth noting that other companies are chasing the same goal. Google’s anti-aging division Calico represents significant competition in the race to find the Holy Grail, but smaller firms such as Insilico and Elysium, who take a more ailment-specific approach, are also worth noting. At the moment, Unity Biotechnology holds a patent over senolytics, which gives them a research advantage now, and a pricing power advantage in the future.
Biotech firms tend to take on far less debt than firms in other industries because their assets are relatively illiquid and they do not have a consistent cash flow they can use to pay back debtors. For that reason, and because of the high starting costs of bringing a drug through clinical trials, they tend to issue large amounts of equity for very high prices.
You might ask why an investor, such as a Venture Capital firm or big Pharma company, spend so much money when there is a less than 0.1% chance that a particular drug will make it through pre-clinical and clinical trials to be approved, licenced and distributed?
It’s because the small chance of a big payoff from a blockbuster drug is worth it. Unity Biotechnology has raised $154 million in 5 funding rounds to date, from groups including the Founders Fund, ARCH Venture Partners and Bezos expeditions, some of the most influential investors in the world. That means that there is significant confidence from investors that this company will deliver a major payoff through a blockbuster drug in the future, even though the drugs in the pipeline at the moment are still in the pre-clinical stage.
DRIVERS OF GROWTH:
- Growing Sector: There is a lot of high-profile investor interest in longevity drugs, which means sufficient funding in the near future, useful for a cash-burning pharma start-up.
- Team experience: You can’t put a price on the value of having a team of winners!
- Industry leaders: Unity Biotechnology hold the patent for senolytic drugs, which gives them a huge head-start in the race to produce the anti-aging drug.
- Huge target market: Would you pay £1 a day to live 30 years longer? Their drugs could be useful for billions of people, meaning massive potential revenues even with a very low cost.
- Decreasing cost of research: The use of Machine Learning in the Pharmaceutical industry is decreasing the cost of data management in research, and may even help companies to find new drugs- we will cover this more in a future post…
INHIBITORS OF GROWTH:
- Distribution network: Unity Biotechnology does not have an existing manufacturing and distribution network, so it is likely that they will have to enter into a partnership with big Pharma, or be acquired by a larger pharmaceutical company.
- Uncertainty over target market: Companies are facing a health system with fragile growth and high debt, caused by squeezing Government budgets. Who will pay for the drugs?
- Uncertainty: We don’t know whether these drugs will be effective and whether there are adverse side effects.
- Using the drug: Incorporation into modern health systems- who prescribes the drugs?
- Pharma pressures: Unity will face the same challenges all pharma companies face, such as losing patents through pressure by generic manufacturers.
Whether a company as large as Unity Biotechnology can still be considered a ‘start-up’ is open to debate, but, as per the theme of this blog, if the endeavours of this company are successful it will transform the world and the decisions we make in our lives.
As is often the case with Pharmaceuticals, we have no choice but to wait for the results of clinical trials to see whether the results are promising. The fact that some of the big players, like Google and the Founders Fund, are investing in this technology means more funding, competition in research and accelerated development. On the flipside, companies are still in the pre-clinical stage with most of their drug pipeline, which means another 10-15 years at least until drugs are licensed and can be taken by everyday users. The search for the Holy Grail continues!
Company finances: ★★★★
Competitive advantage: ★★★★★
Final investor rating: ★★★★
1) This blog has been created using public information about UNITY BIOTECHNOLOGY.
2) This is an opinion piece intended only for educational purposes, not as professional investment advice.
3) I can declare no conflicts of interest in the publication of this article.