Martin Borch Jensen, Gordian

A longevi­ty re­searcher and wealthy back­ers launch fast grants to fund ‘crazy ideas’ in an­ti-ag­ing re­search

Mar­tin Borch Jensen was at­tend­ing a small con­fer­ence ear­li­er this year when Patrick Col­li­son, the bil­lion­aire CEO of Stripe, got on stage to talk about Covid Fast Grants, the fund he co-launched in April 2020 to help re­searchers quick­ly piv­ot their work to ad­dress the pan­dem­ic.

Col­li­son, econ­o­mist Tyler Cowen, and bio­engi­neer Patrick Hsu set up Fast Grants af­ter it be­came clear that, de­spite the emerg­ing cri­sis, many re­searchers were wait­ing months to get through the NIH’s bu­reau­crat­ic grant process. They raised $50 mil­lion and fund­ed tri­als on re­pur­posed drugs, the de­vel­op­ment of sali­va-based tests, and re­search on long Covid, among oth­er ef­forts.

And the trio be­came evan­ge­lists for al­ter­na­tive fund­ing mod­els in sci­ence.

Jensen, co-founder and CSO of the longevi­ty biotech Gor­dian Biotech­nol­o­gy and a for­mer post­doc at the Buck In­sti­tute for Re­search on Ag­ing, won­dered if he could set up the same thing for his own field.

“A lot of the crazy ideas don’t get fund­ing,” Jensen told End­points News. “There’s all these ideas that peo­ple have that could be re­al­ly im­por­tant but they ei­ther don’t ap­ply or they ap­ply and they don’t get fund­ing.”

A year lat­er, fast grants for ag­ing have be­come a re­al­i­ty. Team­ing with a cou­ple of oth­er promi­nent mem­bers of the in­su­lar longevi­ty field — Lau­ra Dem­ing, founder of the Longevi­ty Fund, is on the board — Jensen launched Longevi­ty Im­pe­tus Grants this week. So far, he’s raised $26 mil­lion, which he plans to dole out to aca­d­e­mics and non-prof­its in $10,000 to $500,000 in­cre­ments.

As of­ten is the case in the longevi­ty field, the fund­ing comes large­ly from wealthy in­di­vid­u­als in the tech world. That in­cludes Juan Benet, CEO of Pro­to­col Labs, and Vi­ta­lik Bu­terin, the 27-year-old co-founder of the cryp­tocur­ren­cy Ethereum. Ap­pli­ca­tions open Mon­day but Jensen will con­tin­ue to try to raise more.

Un­like with Covid, there is no burn­ing cri­sis the grants are try­ing to ad­dress (al­though Jensen, like many in the longevi­ty field, will talk at length about the crip­pling bur­den our rapid­ly ag­ing world will place on its health­care sys­tems).

But Jensen and his re­view­ers, who are anony­mous, will try to back ideas they say have been ig­nored by the tra­di­tion­al fund­ing sources for ag­ing work. And they will try to do so quick­ly, of­fer­ing an ab­bre­vi­at­ed grant ap­pli­ca­tion and promis­ing a de­ci­sion with­in three weeks of sub­mis­sion. (A typ­i­cal NIH grant re­view can in­volve 10-20 sci­en­tists and three sep­a­rate phas­es.)

Lau­ra Dem­ing

Top fun­ders most­ly back on­ly a hand­ful of ideas that have al­ready been proven to ex­tend lives of lab an­i­mals, Jensen ar­gued, such as caloric re­stric­tion and senes­cent cells, leav­ing oth­er hy­poth­e­sized ag­ing and an­ti-ag­ing mech­a­nisms un­der-test­ed. For ex­am­ple, he said, re­search on the role the ex­tra­cel­lu­lar ma­trix — all the pro­teins, metabo­lites and oth­er de­tri­tus float­ing out­side the cell — plays in ag­ing has got­ten lit­tle at­ten­tion.

In one ma­jor case, these en­ti­ties are re­strict­ed in what they’re even al­lowed to back. Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes on Ag­ing, one of the key sources for fund­ing for aca­d­e­m­ic longevi­ty re­search, legal­ly has to give a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of its grants to Alzheimer’s work, Dem­ing not­ed.

“Of­ten sci­en­tists have to twist their ideas in­to a pret­zel to fit what fun­ders want,” she said in an email.

Im­pe­tus, in the­o­ry, will be more open. The new ef­fort comes amid a new surge of fund­ing in­to longevi­ty re­search. Google sub­sidiary Cal­i­co and Ab­b­Vie pledged an­oth­er $1 bil­lion for their an­ti-ag­ing and can­cer work. And over the past year, high-pro­file fig­ures from Sil­i­con Val­ley have raised hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and re­cruit­ed high-pro­file pro­fes­sors and biotech ex­ec­u­tives for Al­tos Labs, a com­pa­ny fo­cused on re­pro­gram­ming cells to make them “younger.”

On the gov­ern­ment side, Pres­i­dent Biden has pro­posed a new in­sti­tute, called $6.5 bil­lion ARPA-H, that would fund high-risk med­ical re­search. Much of it would fo­cus on age-re­lat­ed dis­eases such as Alzheimer’s.

David Sin­clair

The grants ini­tia­tive has been met with sup­port from oth­er promi­nent re­searchers in the an­ti-ag­ing field. Har­vard bi­ol­o­gist David Sin­clair, who showed he could re­ju­ve­nate neu­rons and re­store vi­sion in mice last year, said in an email the grants would help the longevi­ty field con­tin­ue to ac­cel­er­ate at its “in­creas­ing­ly fast pace.”

Paul Rob­bins, a bio­chemist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, said the ag­ing field has long need­ed a fund­ing mech­a­nism for risky re­search that isn’t dri­ven by a sin­gle hy­poth­e­sis. He hopes Im­pe­tus will fund re­search on cel­lu­lar re­pro­gram­ming or ef­forts to an­a­lyz­ing cen­te­nar­i­ans and su­per­cente­nar­i­ans (peo­ple over 110) for ge­net­ic clues that turn in­to drug tar­gets.

“How­ev­er, like any grant­i­ng agency, the process de­pends up­on the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and bi­as­es of the re­view group,” he said in an email. “Will be in­ter­est­ing to see what types of grants are fund­ed ini­tial­ly.”

Jensen notes that many of the key find­ings in longevi­ty, in­clud­ing re­pro­gram­ming and epi­ge­net­ic “clocks” to com­pute a per­son’s age and dis­ease risk, were done with­out grant mon­ey.

He al­so not­ed that repli­ca­tion re­ceives lit­tle back­ing be­cause it’s viewed as less glam­orous or nov­el than orig­i­nal stud­ies. He hopes to back stud­ies that de­ter­mine whether one of the many things sci­en­tists have learned ex­tend mouse or worm life ac­tu­al­ly work in oth­er an­i­mals.

Both Jensen and Rob­bins said they’d like to see work on a bio­mark­er for ag­ing, long one of the holy grails of ag­ing re­search.

Be­cause a tri­al di­rect­ly test­ing whether a mol­e­cule ac­tu­al­ly ex­tend­ed healthy peo­ple’s lives would take far too long, the fu­ture of drug de­vel­op­ment for ag­ing will de­pend on whether a sci­en­tist or a com­pa­ny can prove that some pro­tein or DNA mark cor­re­lates di­rect­ly with en­hanced longevi­ty.

Com­pa­nies could then sim­ply prove their drug sig­nif­i­cant­ly changed that mark­er, in the same way, car­dio­vas­cu­lar biotechs can win an ap­proval based on low­er cho­les­terol, rather than wait­ing to see if their mol­e­cule stops heart at­tacks.

Re­search in the field is still ear­ly, though, mak­ing it an un­at­trac­tive can­di­date to many fun­ders. But a break­through could get the ball rolling.

“Of­ten­times it’s like, ‘No, I don’t be­lieve it un­til some­one does it,” Jensen said, de­scrib­ing the NIH’s at­ti­tude. With the new grants, “you can do it and then shove it in peo­ple’s faces.”

The ar­ti­cle has been up­dat­ed to cor­rect the spelling of Patrick Col­li­son.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.

Jay Bradner (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Div­ing deep­er in­to in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­or­ders, No­var­tis gob­bles up an­oth­er bite-sized op­to­ge­net­ics biotech

Right about a year ago, a Novartis team led by Jay Bradner and Cynthia Grosskreutz at NIBR swooped in to scoop up a Cambridge, MA-based opthalmology gene therapy company called Vedere. Their focus was on a rather narrow market niche: inherited retinal dystrophies that include a wide range of genetic retinal disorders marked by the loss of photoreceptor cells and progressive vision loss.

But that was just the first deal that whet their appetite.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 117,700+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

FDA hands ac­cel­er­at­ed nod to Seagen, Gen­mab's so­lo ADC in cer­vi­cal can­cer, but com­bo stud­ies look even more promis­ing

Biopharma’s resident antibody-drug conjugate expert Seagen has scored a clutch of oncology approvals in recent years, finding gold in what are known as “third-gen” ADCs. Now, another of their partnered conjugates is ready for prime time.

The FDA on Monday handed an accelerated approval to Seagen and Genmab’s Tivdak (tisotumab vedotin-tftv, or “TV”) in second-line patients with recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer who previously progressed after chemotherapy rather than PD-(L)1 systemic therapy, the companies said in a release.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

Zol­gens­ma patent spat brews be­tween No­var­tis and Re­genxbio as top No­var­tis gene ther­a­py ex­ec de­parts

Regenxbio, a small licensor of gene therapy viral vectors spun out from the University of Pennsylvania, is now finding itself in the middle of some major league patent fights.

In addition to a patent suit with Sarepta Therapeutics from last September, Novartis, is now trying to push its smaller partner out of the way. The Swiss biopharma licensed Regenxbio’s AAV9 vector for its $2.1 million spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 117,700+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Time for round 2: Il­lu­mi­na-backed VC snags $325M for its next fund

Illumina Ventures closed off its second investment fund with a total commitment of $325 million, offering fresh fuel to back a slate of startups that have already included a smorgasbord of companies, covering everything from diagnostics to biotech drug development and genomics.

Fund II brings the total investment under Illumina Ventures’ oversight to $560 million, which has been focused on early-stage companies. And it has a transatlantic portfolio that includes SQZ, Twist and Encoded Therapeutics.

Volker Wagner (L) and Jeff Legos

As Bay­er, No­var­tis stack up their ra­dio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal da­ta at #ES­MO21, a key de­bate takes shape

Ten years ago, a small Norwegian biotech by the name of Algeta showed up at ESMO — then the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Conference 2011 — and declared that its Bayer-partnered targeted radionuclide therapy, radium-223 chloride, boosted the overall survival of castration-resistant prostate cancer patients with symptomatic bone metastases.

In a Phase III study dubbed ALSYMPCA, patients who were treated with radium-223 chloride lived a median of 14 months compared to 11.2 months. The FDA would stamp an approval on it based on those data two years later, after Bayer snapped up Algeta and christened the drug Xofigo.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 117,700+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.