Of the many people currently involved in searching for ways to slow down or delay the effects of growing older, Nathaniel David might actually have a shot.
David is president of Unity Biotechnology, one of a slew of companies taking part in the current zeitgeist of aging research. Founded in 2009 by David and a group of professors in the biological sciences, Unity Biotechnology's research focuses in particular on senescent cells — older cells that have stopped dividing and appear to be one of the causes of the onset of the diseases associated with aging.
The company, based out of Brisbane, California, has received more than $300 million in funding, including $85 million raised after going public this past May. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel are also investors. Today the company's market cap is $700 million.
A main part of Unity Biotechnology's work isn't focused on aging per se, but rather on designing drugs and treatments that can make a person functional and free of the diseases associated with aging for as long as possible. "We don't need to invoke ideas about aging. We view it through the lens of specific disease," David, a molecular and cell biologist, said.
Osteoarthritis is the first disease Unity Biotechnology is tackling, and that one disease represents a huge opportunity: By 2026 the market for osteoarthritis drugs will be $2.6 billion in the United States alone. The company is currently in a phase 1, government-approved safety trial with about 40 patients in multiple sites across the U.S. The goal is to show that the drug Unity is developing — what's called a senolytic agent — can be injected into the knee in gradually higher doses and tolerated by patients. Ultimately, the thinking is that such a drug can destroy senescent cells, effectively halting or reversing osteoarthritis in the knee. In the future the same drug might be effective in treating pain elsewhere in the body.
"Osteoarthritis standard of care begins with ibuprofen, then steroids, and then most people's standard of care is just accepting it: You're old, that sucks, and you're now in pain for the rest of your life," David said. "But we think there's a better way, by looking through the lens of biological insight of why those diseases happen in the first place."