Unity files for $85M IPO to take anti-aging drugs into phase 1

Unity Biotechnology has filed for an $85 million IPO. Hitting the target would bring the preclinical anti-aging startup’s fundraising haul up toward $300 million and set it up to move two assets into the clinic.

Brisbane, California-based Unity is one of a clutch of biotechs seeking to extend healthy human lifespans. That big goal has enabled Unity to secure financial support from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and a clutch of storied VCs, from founding investor Arch Venture Partners to Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Baillie Gifford and Venrock.

Unity last tapped private investors last month with a $55 million series C round. But it is already after its next financial hit. This time, Unity wants public investors to buy into its experimental ideas.

The $85 million IPO would secure Unity’s financial future into 2020. Over that period, Unity plans to move two drugs into human testing. Lead program UBX0101, an inhibitor of the MDM2-p53 protein interaction, is due to begin testing in osteoarthritic patients in the next couple of months. UBX1967, an inhibitor of certain Bcl-2 apoptosis regulatory proteins, will arrive in the clinic next year.

Unity’s initial target indications for the drugs—osteoarthritis and an ophthalmologic disease—reflect its strategy for making the daunting task of tackling aging more manageable. The indications enable Unity to start out administering its drugs locally, before expanding into diseases that require systemic treatment if the early trials validate its approach. Systemic administration would open up indications related to the aging of the heart, kidney and liver.

Whatever the route of administration, Unity will seek to slow or reverse aging by targeting cellular senescence. This process sees cells halt division, leading to the accumulation of senescent cells and secretion of inflammatory factors, proteases and other proteins. Unity thinks the proteins disturb tissues and trigger senescence in other cells, leading to the emergence of aged or diseased tissues. 

Unity wants to disrupt this process. UBX0101, the lead asset, is designed to clear out senescent cells by interfering with a protein interaction. UBX1967 takes a different approach—the triggering of cell death—to achieve a similar goal. If the broad cellular senescence idea works as Unity hopes, the biotech could theoretically address the root cause of a wide range of aging-associated diseases. 

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A lot of questions remain unanswered, though. Unity is working at the frontiers of what we know about aging. And, while that could see it develop breakthrough products, it also exposes the biotech and its backers to risks. Not only is Unity yet to test its drugs in humans, it also lacks conclusive evidence that the accumulation of senescent cells is the root cause of age-related diseases. If Unity is wrong about that point, its entire R&D strategy will fall apart.

Unity has already run into difficulties. Efforts to mimic osteoarthritis, a disease that develops over years in humans, in short-term animal models has proven to be tricky. Unity was unable to generate significant senescence in one model. Another model yielded far higher levels of senescence, but administration of UBX0101 failed to reduce levels of the cells or associated proteins. If UBX0101 underperforms like that in the clinic, the drug’s advance down the pipeline may end early.

All biotechs face uncertainties going into the clinic for the first time, but few pocket more than $200 million and then swing for $85 million IPOs before generating human data. With the delivery of that data still on the horizon, the IPO is a test of investors’ willingness to put their faith in a management team and founding investor that have delivered in the past—and the appeal of a big idea.