After axing leading program, Unity now takes the ax to staff

A month ago, trendy anti-aging biotech Unity Biotechnology cut its leading and only clinical drug after a major flop, reverting it back to a preclinical biotech.

Now, it’s having to make cuts to staff in an effort to save cash and refocus. All told, 30% will be axed, leaving it with around 75 full-time employees by year-end.

This will help keep the lights on “through mid-2022,” it said in a statement, as it looks to move several preclinical assets into the clinic. These include UBX1325, which targets Bcl-xL, a new mechanism to eliminate senescent cells in age-related diseases of the eye.

A phase 1 test for the drug in diabetic macular edema is expected to begin “before the end of the year.” It also has a go-to if need be in UBX1967, which “remains in the portfolio as a molecularly distinct backup to UBX1325.”

This all comes after a disastrous August for the company, during which its key leading knee pain program failed and was swiftly thrown onto the trash heap.

The drug, known as UBX0101, had already traveled a rocky path: Last year, Unity posted phase 1 data linking UBX0101 to improved scores on pain symptom questionnaires in patients with moderate to severe osteoarthritis (OA), but the drug failed to statistically outperform placebo in the second part of the study.

Unity, however, ploughed on, seeing enough promise in the data to move the p53/MDM2 interaction inhibitor into phase 2. Unity recently completed enrollment in the 183-subject trial, setting it up to post top-line data in the second half of the year.

When the data hit last month, they proved grim reading: The 12-week results from the phase 2 study in patients with moderate to severe painful OA of the knee found that there “was no statistically significant difference” between any arm of UBX0101 and placebo.

Hence, the need to restructure and slim down as the company, which had created a lot of noise in recent years alongside other anti-aging biotechs, lost its only in-human drug and fell back into being a preclinical biotech.

Its shares fell 60% on the news, down from around $12 apiece in early August to less than $4 today.

“Unity is a pioneer in the development of therapeutics targeting senescent cells at the crux of many age-related diseases, and we will continue to build on this scientific foundation as we advance our pipeline," said Anirvan Ghosh, Ph.D., chief of Unity and a former Biogen exec.  

“We are excited about advancing UNITY’s lead ophthalmology program, UBX1325, into clinical studies in patients with diabetic macular edema, an indication with a well-defined development path and objective endpoints.

“In addition, I see significant opportunities emerging from programs in our preclinical pipeline targeting ophthalmologic and neurologic disease. I look forward to using my experience leading drug discovery and development programs in these areas to advance the development of a new class of high efficacy therapies.”