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Does The Failure of One Anti-Ageing Drug Spell Doom For Other Research?

Posted on 26 August 2020

What Does Unity’s Phase II Fail Mean for European Anti-Aging Research?
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Ageing is a complex process that we break down into a group of characteristic processes, the ‘hallmarks of ageing’. These include DNA damage and the accumulation of senescent cells (cells that are no longer able to divide). Candidate anti-ageing drugs aim to target these hallmarks in order to prevent or reverse age-related disease.

The Hallmarks of Aging: Cell

Senolytics are one promising class of drugs being investigated. Senolytics are designed to remove senescent cells, which are directly implicated in many age-related diseases. One prominent senolytic is a drug developed by Unity Biotechnology, a US firm backed by big investors such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Recently, however, their phase II trial for a treatment for osteoarthritis met with failure. So what went wrong, and does this spell doom for other senolytics?

Unity has revealed little about why its lead candidate drug failed in this trial. For example, it’s unclear whether the drug was able to remove senescent cells from arthritic joints but failed anyway, or whether it failed to clear senescent cells in the first place.

In early-stage fields like geroscience, setbacks like this can have major impacts on other companies in the same field.

There are many geroscience companies in Europe, including several developing senolytic drugs such as Cleara Biotech in the Netherlands, Velabs Therapeutics in Germany, and Senolytx in Spain. The general consensus from these companies is that failures are bound to happen in emerging fields like geroscience.

While the setback is unfortunate, it is not entirely surprising given the ambitious nature of the Unity trial.

[…] for some in the field, Unity’s attempt to treat osteoarthritis was extremely ambitious and risky. There are currently no drugs approved that can slow the pathology underlying the condition.

To alter the fundamental course of osteoarthritis is almost like a moonshot,” said Declan Doogan, CMO of the Isle of Man geroscience company Juvenescence. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it. And indeed I applaud them for doing that.

unity biotechnology anti-aging osteoarthritis

European senolytics biotechs are confident that their own approach can succeed where Unity’s lead candidate failed. For example, Cleara Biotech’s small molecule candidate has a different cellular target to that of Unity’s lead candidate, and Velabs’ candidates are antibody drugs instead of small molecules. Senolytx is branching out into developing senomorphic drugs — treatments that don’t kill senescent cells, but instead limit their harmful effect on their surrounding tissue.

For some geroscience companies, this could even be an opportunity. For Shift Bioscience CEO Daniel Ives, Unity’s failure is another indication that we need a better understanding of the aging process, and efforts to study it in more detail could attract investor attention.

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