NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – BioAge Labs, an early-stage drug discovery firm, recently raised $10.9 million to develop therapies that could extend a person's lifespan.
The Berkeley, California-based company has also partnered with the Estonian Genome Center to access various data related to long-lived individuals in the northern European country, which has enabled BioAge to craft bioinformatic tools that it claims can identify the molecular signatures of aging.
BioAge now intends to set up an internal laboratory to experiment with different compounds while building out its team.
"We are distinct from other pharma companies because we are looking at aging, rather than particular diseases," said CEO Kristen Fortney. "We are scaling up our drug-screening efforts right now, and we hope in a year that we'll have some molecules that we think work well against aging," she said.
Fortney, a former postdoc and bioinformatician at Stanford University focused on the genetics of aging, co-founded BioAge in 2015, when the firm received some seed funding. The company announced it raised $10.9 million in Series A financing over the summer, with investments from Menlo Park, California-based venture capital firm Andreeson Horowitz, as well as Felicis Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Caffeinated Capital, Color Genomics Co-founder Elad Gil, and others.
Following the round, Andreeson Horowitz's Vijay Pande joined BioAge's board of directors.
In addition to Fortney, BioAge's management team consists of Chris Morrissey, its head of bioinformatics, and Jonah Sinick, head of data science. In total, the company employs eight people, but that is set to expand given the new financing, with additions planned to round out its biology and technology expertise.
"We have a really strong informatics team," said Fortney. "It's not easy – we have to evaluate all of these different data points, electronic health records, so having a strong data science team has been really critical for us."
BioAge has relied on a diverse set of data to build out its platform, but its main scientific partner has been the Estonian Genome Center at the University of Tartu, which manages the Estonian Biobank, a collection of data from 52,000 donors, all of whom have been genotyped on Illumina arrays, and roughly 5,000 of whom have either undergone whole-genome or whole-exome sequencing. Linked to this wealth of genomic data are the country's centralized electronic health records, with information on donors' diagnoses, drug prescriptions, and self-reported lifestyle data related to diet, physical activity, alcohol intake, smoking, and family health history.
According to Fortney, BioAge looked at 40 different biobanks before deciding to work with the Estonian Biobank, inspired in part by a 2015 paper in Nature Communications that discussed the transcriptional landscape of age in human peripheral blood.
She said that BioAge has been less interested in the Estonian Biobank's genomic data, though, and more focused on "dynamic omics," obtaining metabolomic data on a set of about 600 long-lived Estonians, in addition to gaining access to a treasure trove of EHRs.
"We built a healthy-aging cohort, people who over a decade ago were elderly but still healthy," said Fortney. "These are samples that they collected, and they have continuously been updating their medical records since then, which is great, because it means we have phenotypes for these blood samples and then can try to predict the future, predict which of these people are going to get heart disease, or how long they are going to live based on the sample," Fortney added. "We are able to do that because they have these samples they collected a while ago coupled with great follow-up data."
Tõnu Esko, deputy director of research at the Estonian Biobank and a visiting researcher at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has overseen the resource's relationship with the private sector, including its collaboration with BioAge.
"The research project developed jointly with BioAge Labs taps into all the strengths of the Estonian digital health ecosystem and the Estonian Biobank – 15-plus years of electronic health data, a unique legal and ethical setting, and a biobank of diverse samples that are collected up to 15 years before the endpoint – in BioAge Labs' case, all-cause mortality," Esko said.
As part of his work with BioAge Labs, Esko served as project coordinator and also participated in study design that contributed to the creation of its drug discovery platform. This included selection of biobank participants, as well as helping to arrange for samples selected by BioAge to undergo profiling at the Broad on the institute's metabolomics platform using an untargeted mass spectrometry approach. According to Esko, the work yielded more than 500 small circulating molecule concentrations, as well as 10,000 unknown mass spectrometry features, many of which were, in his words, predictive for all-cause mortality.
"If you start taking a drug for aging, your markers will change," said Fortney of BioAge's interest in metabolomic data. "Of course, your genetics will not change, but your metabolome will change, your methylome will change," she said. "We tend to focus most of our analyses on the metabolome, the methylome, and the proteome."
"These types of discoveries make science thrilling," said Esko of the outcome of the work with BioAge. "New hypotheses and biological leads will be generated to direct future research, which can be solved using systems biology, genomics, and a clever computational framework."
BioAge is the Estonian Genome Center's sole private partner developing therapies for aging, but the center has made its resources available in similar public-private partnerships. Esko said such relationships are "extremely important" as they accelerate R&D in the private sector, and help to transform the center's work into "radically new products with a much shorter turnaround time."
To date, the Estonian Biobank has also discussed a partnership with Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, focused on the biological mechanisms involved in long-term weight maintenance, with a long-term goal to discover targeted nutritional approaches to improve weight management in obese people.
According to Esko, in addition to the work with BioAge and Nestlé, the Estonian Biobank is in negotiations with several pharmaceutical and IT companies and "health IT" startups. "Big data in combination with artificial intelligence and machine-learning approaches will yield radical innovations," he said.
It's a hope shared by BioAge's Fortney, who believes the reliance on data collected on human subjects – as opposed to traditional longitudinal studies performed on other mammals, such as mice – will allow her company to quickly progress to developing therapies using its internally developed molecular signatures of aging, enabling faster and higher-throughput drug screening.
With the new funding, the company will commence in vivo evaluation of its first drug candidates, focusing first on diseases where aging is considered to be causal, such as Alzheimer's disease, with a longer-term objective to combat the effects of aging itself. Fortney said that BioAge should be finished with its first round of validation studies by year end, and will start testing new drugs in 2018.
"We consider ourselves a drug discovery company and this is a tool we've built to make drug discovery more efficient," said Fortney of the work accomplished with the Estonian Biobank. "We are now going to do a lot of scientific experiments to evaluate new therapies for aging."
While she conceded that drug discovery is a "long process," Fortney said that given the new financing, BioAge is now "comfortably funded" to attain that first milestone. She also said that the company's business model is to both partner with other companies to bring new therapies related to aging to market, while pursuing commercialization in some cases on its own.
"I think in the best possible scenario, we would license some of our assets and develop some in house," said Fortney.