Why Amazon CEO Dropped Millions Into Bay Area's Unity Biotech
January 27, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have taken an interest in healthcare, and part of that interest is focused on curing diseases—from cancer to diabetes and everything in between. Examples include Google ’s Verily, which, among many things, is attempting to create sensors for diabetics, and Google’s Calico, which is focused on longevity. And consider the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which has the goal of curing all diseases by the end of the century.
Now it looks like Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon , is showing interest in longevity as well. He recently invested millions of his own dollars into Unity Biotechnology.
Unity was founded in 2011. Immortality isn’t part of its goal. As the Thrillist writes, “its mission is to help us live more active, comfortable lives up until the day we croak by developing drugs that selectively eliminate certain stagnating cells in our bodies that cause the painful, debilitating diseases associated with old age.”
Currently the company has five programs in research or pre-clinical development. They focus on inflammatory joint diseases, ophthalmology, atherosclerosis, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and chronic kidney diseases. The emphasis is on cellular senescence, which the company describes as a “biological ‘emergency brake’ cells use to stop dividing.” This same mechanism is involved in controlling tumor growth. But the company notes that those senescent cells continue to float around in the body, and accumulate with age. And they also secrete inflammatory molecules, which damage neighboring tissues and cells.
The company has shown in animal models that by selectively removing senescent cells, it’s possible to reverse or prevent several diseases, including osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis, eye diseases, and kidney diseases.
On October 27, 2016, Unity announced that it had closed on a Series B financing worth $116 million. It included new investments from longtime investors ARCH Venture Partners, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Partner Fund Management, and Venrock. Other investors included Bezos Expeditions, and existing investors WuXi PharmaTech and Mayo Clinic Ventures.
At the same time, the company indicated that Keith Leonard would come on as chief executive officer. The company’s founder and previous chief executive, Nathaniel “Ned” David, became president. Leonard was most recently chief executive officer of Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, which he co-founded with Ned David. Allergan acquired Kythera in late 2015 for $2.1 billion.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have attracted this powerful syndicate of visionary investors to support our mission of building a science-driven company focused on attacking diseases of aging and lengthening healthspan,” Leonard said in a statement. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to work with Ned and his amazing team here at Unity on such an important endeavor.”
The financing announcement followed the publication of research by two of the company’s co-founders, Judith Campisi and Jan van Deursen, in the journal Science. The article showed the role of senescent cells in atherosclerotic disease and demonstrated that elimination of those cells showed promise for treatment in humans.
“This newly published work adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of cellular senescence in aging and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells is a promising therapeutic paradigm to treat diseases of aging and extended healthspan,” said Jamie Dananberg, Unity’s chief medical officer, in a statement. “We believe that we have line of sight to slow, halt, or even reverse numerous diseases of aging, and we look forward to starting clinical trials with our first drug candidates in the near future.”
Perhaps Bezos and the Mayo Clinic are on to something. Unity’s focus isn’t on necessarily adding years to your life, but, as the expression goes, adding life to your years.