90 Miles From Tyranny : A stealthy Harvard startup wants to reverse aging in dogs, and humans could be next...

Saturday, May 12, 2018

A stealthy Harvard startup wants to reverse aging in dogs, and humans could be next...

The world’s most influential synthetic biologist is behind a new company that plans to rejuvenate dogs using gene therapy. If it works, he plans to try the same approach in people, and he might be one of the first volunteers.

The stealth startup Rejuvenate Bio, cofounded by George Church of Harvard Medical School, thinks dogs aren’t just man’s best friend but also the best way to bring age-defeating treatments to market.

The company, which has carried out preliminary tests on beagles, claims it will make animals “younger" by adding new DNA instructions to their bodies.

Its age-reversal plans build on tantalizing clues seen in simple organisms like worms and flies. Tweaking their genes can increase their life spans by double or better. Other research has shown that giving old mice blood transfusions from young ones can restore some biomarkers to youthful levels.
Harvard biologist George Church is working on technology to reverse aging in dogs and humans.

“We have already done a bunch of trials in mice and we are doing some in dogs, and then we’ll move on to humans,” Church told the podcaster Rob Reid earlier this year. The company’s other founders, CEO Daniel Oliver and science lead Noah Davidsohn, a postdoc in Church’s sprawling Boston lab, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The company’s efforts to keep its activities out of the press make it unclear how many dogs it has treated so far. In a document provided by a West Coast veterinarian, dated last June, Rejuvenate said its gene therapy had been tested on four beagles with Tufts Veterinary School in Boston. It is unclear whether wider tests are under way.

However, from public documents, a patent application filed by Harvard, interviews with investors and dog breeders, and public comments made by the founders, MIT Technology Review assembled a portrait of a life-extension startup pursuing a longevity long shot through the $72-billion-a-year US pet industry.

“Dogs are a market in and of themselves,” Church said during an event in Boston last week. “It’s not just a big organism close to humans. It’s something people will pay for, and the FDA process is much faster. We’ll do dog trials, and that’ll be a product, and that’ll pay for scaling up in human trials.”

Noah Davidsohn (left) and Daniel Oliver (right)—seen here with the dog-show announcer David Frei—have appealed to dog owners to fund an anti-aging study in pets.

It’s still unknown if the company’s treatments do anything for dogs. If they do work, however, it might not take long for people to clamor for similar nostrums, creating riches for inventors.

The effort draws on ongoing advances in biotechnology, including the ability to edit genes. To some scientists, this progress means that mastery over aging is inevitable, although no one can say exactly how soon it will happen. The prolongation of human lifespan is “the biggest thing that is going to happen in the 21st century,” says David Sinclair, a Harvard biologist who collaborates with the Church lab. “It’s going to make what Elon Musk is doing look fairly pedestrian.”

Dog years

Rejuvenate Bio has met with investors and won a grant from the US Special Operations Command to look into “enhancement” of military dogs while Harvard is seeking a broad patent on genetic means of aging control in species including the “cow, pig, horse, cat, dog, rat, etc.”

The team hit on the idea of treating pets because proving that it’s possible to increase longevity in humans would take too long. “You don’t want to go to the FDA and say we extend life by 20 years. They’d say, ‘Great, come back in 20 years with the data,’” Church said during the event in Boston.

Instead, Rejuvenate will first try to stop fatal heart ailments common in spaniels and Doberman pinschers, amassing evidence that the concepts can work in humans too.

Lab research already provides hints that aging can be reversed. For instance, scientists can “reprogram” any cell to take on the type of youthful state seen in an embryo. But turning back the aging program in animals is not as easy because we’re made up of trillions of specialized cells acting in concert, not just one floating in a dish. “I don’t think we are even near to being able to reverse the aging process as a whole in mammals,” says J. Pedro de Magalhães, whose team at the University of Liverpool maintains a database of longevity-connected genes.

Starting around 2015, Church’s large Harvard lab, also known for attempting to genetically resurrect the woolly mammoth, decided to make a run at rejuvenating mice using gene therapy and newer tools like CRISPR.

Gene therapies work by inserting DNA instructions into a virus, which conveys them into an animal’s cells. In the Harvard lab, the technology has been used to modulate gene activity in old mice—either increasing or lowering it—in an effort to return certain molecules to levels seen in younger, healthy animals.
A flyer promoting a gene-therapy study in pet dogs says technology can make them “younger.”

The lab started working through a pipeline of more than 60 different gene therapies, which it is testing on old mice, alone and in combinations. The Harvard group now plans to publish a scientific report on a technique that extends rodents’ lives by modifying two genes to act on four major diseases of aging: heart and kidney failure, obesity, and diabetes. According to Church, the results are “pretty eye-popping.”

Any age you want

In a January presentation about his project at Harvard, Davidsohn closed by displaying a picture of a white-bearded Church as he is now and another as he was decades ago, hair still auburn. Yet the second image was labelled 2117 AD—100 years in the future.

The images reflect Church’s aspirations for true age reversal. He says he’d sign up if a treatment proved safe, or even as a guinea pig in a study. Essentially, Church has said, the objective is to “have the body and mind of a 22-year-old but the experience of a 130-year-old.”

Such ideas are finding an audience in Silicon Valley, where billionaires like Peter Thiel look upon the defeat of aging as both a personal imperative and, potentially, a huge business that would transform society. Earlier this year, for example, Davidsohn told Thiel’s Founders Fund that because scientists can already modify life spans of simpler organisms, it should be possible to do so with humans as well. He told the investors that one day “we’ll be able to control the biological clock and keep you whatever age you...

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