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Next Stop: Humans

On March 24, Boston biopharmaceutical company PureTech Health announced it was licensing two drug molecules from Swiss healthcare company Novartis, along with rights to deploy them against aging-related disease. The research will be the basis of a new startup, resTORbio. PureTech Health says it will continue to test whether aged immune cells can be rejuvenated by a Novartis drug called everolimus.

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Back in 2014, Novartis conducted its first study on everolimus to determine if the drug made people over age 65 better able to respond to flu vaccines. This “first human aging trial” was a success; everolimus boosted immune responses by around 20 percent.

The drug is derived from rapamycin, a compound originally discovered in a bacterium found on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. Rapamycin has broad effects on the immune system, so it has already been used as an immune suppressant and in transplant medicine. In fact, Novartis already sells one incarnation of rapamycin: the prescription anticancer drug Afinitor.

Currently, rapamycin is the most reliable known way to postpone death in lab animals. So far, it has been proven to extend the lives of worms, flies, and rodents. Mice live 25 percent longer, on average, when fed rapamycin, and a study testing rapamycin's efficacy on dogs is now underway. resTORbio will reportedly attempt to use Novartit's drug molecules to reverse “immunosenescence” by restoring T cells, preventing the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

A Long Road Ahead

A timeline toward commercial use seems unclear for now. No formal studies of rapamycin's anti-aging effects on humans have been undertaken, in part because the idea still sounds like science fiction to many people and also because longterm studies (in this case) take too long. Furthermore, since aging has not yet been formally recognized as a treatable disease, researchers don't have a clear path toward approval from a regulatory standpoint.

Venture capitalists may ease rapamycin and other anti-aging drugs past this rough patch. In 2013, Google and Arthur Levinson founded anti-aging company Calico, which partnered with pharmaceutical R&D company AbbVie on a $1.5 billion research center the following year. In 2016, new firm Unity Biotechnologies, which plans to eradicate aged cells with drugs, raised $127 million. Other companies with money to spend and an interest in anti-aging technology include Gero, Human Longevity, In Silico Medicine, and Mount Tam Biotechnologies.

The regulatory and research challenges may be why Novartis says that the research doesn't fit its priorities and that it has no plans to develop rapamycin for aging-related disorders. By selling the program to PureTech, which is committing $15 million to fund resTORbio, Novartis gets to retain a financial stake in the drug's success without any additional investment.

We shouldn't expect a magic pill that stops aging to hit pharmacy shelves any time soon, but reports on these studies should be on the way. The research is ongoing, and more than one company may find success in this growing area of study.

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