Dream of eternal life.
Researcher wants to stop ageing: Two active substances are already in use today
All over the world, research institutes and start-ups are looking for therapies to stop ageing. Their hopes also rest on metformin and rapamycin – two active ingredients that have been known for decades. The investor Alexandra Sharon Bause of Apollo Health Ventures explains what they are planning to do with them.
Anyone who lands on Aeovian’s website without any pharmaceutical expertise will hardly understand how the Californian start-up intends to tackle age-related diseases. It talks about mTORC 1 and mTORC 2, about various molecular processes and about a substance called rapamycin. Heavy fare for those who are not from the profession.
However, listening to Alexandra Sharon Bause, it sounds less complicated. Not only does she have a PhD in pharmacology, she is also a partner and co-founder of Apollo Health Ventures. The German investment company has a rather rare specialty: it founds and finances companies that develop therapies to combat ageing. This includes Aeovian.
Three years ago, Apollo was the first investor to believe in the work of the start-up. Last year, the company was able to convince further investors. The young company, which is based north of San Francisco, raised 37 million dollars. But for what exactly? To understand this, you first have to understand rapamycin.
A life-prolonging molecule with risks and side effects
“Rapamycin has long been approved as a drug that suppresses the immune system,” says Alexandra Bause. Most recently, it has been administered mainly to patients who have had a kidney transplant. “It prevents the donor organ from being rejected by the immune system”. But the drug has another effect. And this is now moving into the focus of longevity and rejuvenation research, i.e. research into life extension and rejuvenation.
“Studies with mice have shown that Rapamycin extends their life expectancy by about 20 percent,” says Alexandra Bause. “There is no other life-prolonging molecule where the study situation is so robust.” Nevertheless, she strongly advises against taking Rapamycin on her own. Because that might just as well have a life-shortening effect, despite the success with mice. “It is not safe,” warns the investor. After all, Rapamycin suppresses the human immune system, which poses a health risk. Only in special cases, like after an organ transplant, do doctors therefore prescribe immunosuppressive drugs like Rapamycin.
This is where Aeovian comes into play again. “The biotech start-up is developing a safe version of Rapamycin,” explains Alexandra Bause. And this can be understood without knowing exactly what mTORC 1 and 2 mean.
Against diabetes – and age-related diseases?
Metformin is a second drug that has been known for decades and has now also been proven to have a life-prolonging effect in mice. “This is a very old diabetes drug,” says Alexandra Bause. “It is relatively safe and is often prescribed first thing when someone has diabetes symptoms. This makes it very common.”
In several trials in humans, metformin has been shown to delay the development of age-related diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s or heart disease. In trials, the drug also slowed down the ageing of cells and made sure that fewer DNA errors crept in during cell reproduction. Many people who are doing research into longevity and rejuvenation are already taking metformin to keep themselves young and healthy.
These include Harvard professor David Sinclair, who is one of the pioneers in the field and who, with his company Life Biosciences and its subsidiaries, also wants to enter the emerging billion-euro market. Alexandra Bause did her doctoral thesis at Harvard in David Sinclair’s neighbouring laboratory.
Despite its widespread use, there are still no large-scale studies proving that metformin actually extends life expectancy in humans – and could give them additional decades in good health. But that is about to change. “Soon, under the leadership of Nir Barzilai, a comprehensive, multi-year study will start to test whether metformin stops the ageing process,” says Alexandra Bause, who does not take metformin herself, by the way.
The scientist Nir Barzilai heads the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. For years, he has also been soliciting funding from private donors to start a six-year clinical trial involving 14 research institutions and 3,000 subjects aged 65-79. In the meantime, he is said to have almost or all of the funds together.
The first therapies that could stop or reverse ageing are not expected before the second half of the decade at the earliest, because of the many tests that are necessary. Especially as start-ups and teams of researchers working on them not only rely on already known drugs, but also develop completely new therapies that are still years away from clinical trials.
Alexandra Bause is nevertheless confident that functioning therapies can be found faster than expected. “In theory, anything is possible,” she says, “including eternal youth or eternal life. The only question is how quickly we can get there. But I believe that we often underestimate how fast technological change happens.” Apollo Health Ventures’ goal, she says, is not eternal youth or eternal life, but to extend people’s healthy lifespans – and prevent age-related diseases.