BioAge’s Kristen Fortney explains how focusing on human data will see two age-targeting drugs head to the clinic next year.
Yesterday, the world again sat up and took notice of the Longevity sector as BioAge Labs announced a $90 million Series C funding round. The Californian biotech firm founded by Kristen Fortney and Eric Morgen is about to head into Phase 2 trials for two compounds identified by its platform as targeting anti-aging pathways.
Longevity.Technology: BioAge’s oversubscribed funding round is a testament to the company’s AI-based approach – analyzing real human data to identify compounds with anti-aging potential.
We spoke with Fortney to find out more about the platform, its origins, and where the new funding takes BioAge.
“I was always motivated by specifically developing therapeutics for aging – it’s such a new area of really high importance,” says Fortney, pointing out that the science of targeting aging is currently only at the tip of the iceberg. “For a couple of decades now, we’ve been able to make mice live 50% longer, and delay the aging of every single tissue at once. If we can translate those types of findings to people, that’s going to be so much more meaningful than drug discovery focused on pursuing one age-related disease at a time.”
This singular focus on delivering results in humans is at the forefront of what BioAge is all about.
“Almost all research in academia is focused on aging in invertebrates, and, to some extent, aging in mice,” says Fortney, pointing at the wealth of research around the worm model C.elegans, which has revealed several hundred different mutations that can make a worm live longer.
“What I think we can learn from those experiments is that a lot of different pathways really matter,” she adds. “I expect that there will also be several dozen human pathways that are really key to longevity, but they’ll probably be completely different from the ones that matter the most to flies, yeast or worms.”
How to discover these human-specific aging pathways is the question that ultimately led to the creation of BioAge.
“We realised that there were a few forward-looking biobanks that started to collect samples from healthy, middle-aged people 50 years ago,” says Fortney. “They have longitudinal samples for those individuals and health records that track them for the rest of their lives – how long they lived, what diseases they got when they were older.”
This human data also includes healthspan variables, such as walking speed, grip strength and cognitive function at various stages throughout the subject’s lifespan.
“Our approach as a company is pretty simple – it’s data. We want to find the most important pathways for human aging, so let’s measure everything.”
Most of the core proprietary data that BioAge leverages is derived from blood samples, which the company analyses to identify all the molecules that it can using modern technologies.
“We look at 5,000 proteins with proteomics, several thousand metabolites with metabolomics, gene expression transcripts with RNA-Seq – tens of thousands of things,” says Fortney. “Then we go into our datasets, and what we’re really looking for is targets and pathways that satisfy two criteria: one, that they change with age, and two, that they predict the future.”
“We can look at our datasets and see that some of them live to be 90-plus, and some of them only make it to 60,” she adds. “We want to know what differentiates them at the molecular level, so that we can nudge those unhealthy aging profiles into healthier ones. We have this really rich follow-up data with all-cause mortality, so we’re able to build that map of the molecular factors that lead to living longer and improving healthspan when you’re older.”
Of course, analysing this magnitude of data from thousands of different samples requires the assistance of artificial intelligence, and both Fortney and Morgen come to the table with strong backgrounds in machine learning.
“To fully appreciate these samples, to really understand genetics and genomics, you have to measure so many variables – you can’t just stare at them and figure out what’s going on,” says Fortney. “You need some sophisticated algorithms to link the pathway activations to tease out the signal from the noise.”
Two compounds that emerged from the noise are the company’s lead products BGE-117 and BGE-175, which will head into Phase 2 trials next year. Both are existing clinical stage candidates for indications unrelated to aging and have therefore already been shown to be safe and well tolerated. Over time, Fortney expects that BioAge will also explore pathways where only preclinical stage assets exist, and then over time to the development of novel compounds.
“Our strategy at BioAge is to start with those pathways that are closest to translation, which means human efficacy,” she says.
“We’re first pursuing those pathways that already have clinical-stage assets, where we know that we can hit the pathway and be safe, there’s a drug that’s been through a phase one study already, and we can immediately take it to an efficacy trial.”
BGE-175 will enter Phase 2 trials targeting immune aging in COVID-19 patients, and Fortney says that the primary indication for BGE-117 will be “disclosed soon.”
“We think BGE-117 is a drug that ultimately could be relevant to frailty and sarcopenia, but that’s not the first indication we’re pursuing now,” she adds.
With the company so focused on targeting aging, how does Fortney feel about having to focus on specific indications?
“If you really think your drug is ultimately going to help billions of people, then what’s the fastest path to get there?” she asks. “If I wanted to know if our drug was improving aging, I would need thousands of people on the trial, and I would need the trial to go on for years. So the way that I see it, we want to make lots of small bets on lots of different mechanisms, get that human efficacy signal, and then scale up from there.”
“That said, I do believe that we’ll eventually find biomarkers that are predictive and meaningful for all-cause mortality,” adds Fortney. “And I hope that that might lead to a different kind of approval path in a more practical population size. But that’s difficult to do now.”
The new round brings the total amount of venture capital funding raised by BioAge to $127 million, and Fortney says that investors are showing “more and more enthusiasm for aging as a space.” So how far does this latest infusion take the company?
“This funding round should get us to efficacy data for these two drugs, and support bringing in an additional two drugs, as well as expanding our data operations,” says Fortney.