Ascentage Pharma, Unity Biotech collab to ‘cure old age’


East meets West as cancer specialist Ascentage Pharma is teaming up with San Francisco’s Unity Biotechnology to help reverse aging in a new research pact. 

China-based Ascentage--which is currently working on apoptosis-targeted cancer treatments--will work with Unity Biotechnology to develop senolytic treatments for age-related diseases in an attempt to roll the back years for seniors.

The Ascentage team has been working for over a decade to create small-molecule drugs targeting programmed cell death while Unity--backed by ARCH Venture Partners, Venrock and Wuxi Healthcare Ventures--has been working for four years to work out the link between senescence and aging.

Recent research published in Nature suggests that senescent cells build up with age and after genotoxic stress, such as total-body irradiation. Clearing these cells in a progeroid mouse model using a transgenic approach was shown to delay several age-associated disorders--suggesting that these cells play an instrumental role in certain age-related pathologies.

The authors of the ‘Clearance of senescent cells by ABT263 rejuvenates aged hematopoietic stem cells in mice’ conclude that: “A 'senolytic' pharmacological agent that can selectively kill senescent cells holds promise for rejuvenating tissue stem cells and extending health span.”

Unity said it has also demonstrated in animal models that clearing senescent cells reverses or prevents many age-related pathologies, including: osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, glaucoma, and kidney disease.

"At Unity, we have demonstrated that senescence is a key mechanism in aging and age-related disease," said Dr. Nathaniel David, founder and CEO of Unity Biotechnology. David is a serial biotech entrepreneur and former CSO at Kythera.

"We have evaluated a wide panel of drug candidates that clear senescent cells, and Ascentage's compounds are some of the best we've seen,” he explained. “Access to their compound library through this collaboration will significantly accelerate our efforts to develop drugs to improve healthspan by halting or reversing several age-related diseases."

David added that the biotech chose Ascentage as its partner in this anti-aging field “not only because of its cutting-edge technology, but also because this partnership will allow us to reach a global market.”

As part of the deal, the companies will also form a JV for the development and commercialization of senolytic drugs in China. Though specific terms are undisclosed, Ascentage has said it will acquire an equity interest in Unity, and in return, the company will make an investment in Ascentage. 

Robert Nelsen, the co-founder and managing director of ARCH Venture Partners and a Unity board member, will join the Ascentage board as an observer.

"We have been tracking the science at Ascentage for some time and are incredibly pleased to enter this collaboration with them," Nelsen said. "We are confident that they will complement what we are doing at Unity to drive major improvements in the treatment of diseases of aging to impact healthspan."

Google ($GOOG) is also attempting to make a splash in the expanded lifespan field with its upstart Calico, although this very early-stage and the tech giant is a little thin on the details. Others are looking to older meds that may contain previously unknown qualities--the top among which is the off-patent type II diabetes drug metformin.

Studies are planned from U.S. academic and government centers in the next year to see if the drug can delay or prevent some of the most devastating diseases of advanced age, from heart ailments to cognitive decline to cancer.

To test the generic pill, originally developed by Merck ($MRK), gerontologists at 14 aging centers around the U.S. will follow 3,000 seniors for 6 years. Half the seniors involved would get the drug, while the others would receive a placebo. This builds on a large British study, published in 2014, that reported older diabetics on metformin on average lived longer than their healthier peers.

Finding a pharmacological elixir is the Holy Grail of medical research--but the road ahead will likely be a long and twisting one. 

- read the joint statement