Drug Development

Billionaire Bezos, Arch carry a torch for aging R&D, back $116M mega-round for Unity

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos

Aging R&D is getting a big boost today.

Jeff Bezos, Arch and other investors drawn to the field have put together a $116 million mega-round to back Unity Biotechnology, which is looking to make the leap into the clinic with new drugs that can selectively sweep away senescent cells that clutter our bodies as we age.

Unity is also getting a new CEO. Keith Leonard, who had run Kythera until Allergan $AGN bought it out late last year for $2.1 billion, is taking the helm as the founding chief Ned David steps into the president’s job, with a special focus on building the platform.

Unity was initially bankrolled by Bob Nelsen at Arch, who also helped orchestrate the mega-money that went into Juno Therapeutics $JUNO and its pioneering CAR-T programs.

Billionaire netizen Bezos was also drawn into that biotech effort, which is now grappling with a setback for its lead program. The rest of the Unity syndicate is made up of Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Partner Fund Management, Venrock and existing investors WuXi PharmaTech and Mayo Clinic Ventures.

The big idea behind Unity revolves around the complex development of new drugs that can achieve a simple goal: reducing specific “senescent cells.” That’s been done in mice, and now the company proposes to make the monumental jump into humans, where there’s also a clear understanding that not all senescent cells are advancing the aging process.

Jamie Dananberg, Unity

Jamie Dananberg, Unity

To further illustrate the field’s promise, the company has published a new paper demonstrating how clearing these cells can inhibit the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, reduce inflammation and change high-risk lesions into stable low-risk lesions. That’s a very practical initial approach to a field that hopes to one day expand the average person’s time horizon on earth to include more than 100 good years of life.

“This newly published work adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of cellular senescence in aging and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells is a promising therapeutic paradigm to treat diseases of aging and extend healthspan,” said Jamie Dananberg, Unity’s chief medical officer in a statement. “We believe that we have line of sight to slow, halt, or even reverse numerous diseases of aging, and we look forward to starting clinical trials with our first drug candidates in the near future.”

Unity has emerged as one of the most prominent examples of a new breed of biotech focused on aging R&D. Its success will likely help spur more investments, even though the field is years away from anything like a late-stage program in improving our life spans. The other most prominent example is Google startup Calico, which has been quietly putting together teams and technologies under the guiding hands of Art Levinson and R&D chief Hal Barron.


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RAPS Regulatory Convergence 2017