The aging research industry has exploded in recent years. Once a fringe area of science, aging research has now gained widespread recognition for its potential to address the challenges of an aging population and extend a healthy lifespan. This growth is due, in part, to the increasing costs of caring for an aging population and the recognition of the importance of understanding the biological processes of aging. Today, researchers, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical firms are all working to develop interventions that could delay or even reverse the aging process.
In this interview, I asked Dr. Eric Leire several questions about aging research and the longevity industry. Dr. Eric Leire is CEO of Genflow Biosciences, a publicly traded UK-based biotech company with R&D facilities in Belgium and a US office in Cambridge, MA. The team at Genflow Biosciences is developing therapeutics that can potentially halt or slow the aging process in humans and dogs. The company's research focuses on a centenarian variant of the SIRT6 gene.
Dr. Eirc Leire, CEO of Genflow Biosciences
Andrii: Aging research and a general focus on longevity is a very recent trend in the pharma industry, with lots of controversies and skepticism. On the other hand, it is one of the potentially most impactful areas of medicine - if major results appear on the horizon. A vivid interest in longevity drug discovery is apparent now and is reflected in a major increase in investments and deal flow. Can you help us figure out what is happening in this area, what is hype, and what is the immediate opportunity? In other words, describe the longevity industry at a glance.
Eric: Longevity is a combination of both living longer and living a better quality of life in old age. Therefore, one of the sector’s focuses is on improving 'healthspans’ and ensuring that aging occurs more healthily; this encompasses delaying the decline we observe with aging and also delaying the onset of age-related diseases like type two diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. The signs of aging we are planning to slow down are, for example, muscle mass decreases, loss of mobility, loss of immune functions, and the onset of cognitive problems.
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The longevity therapy industry can be divided into3 groups. t, A first group will include research groups that try to slow down the aging process by focusing on improving healthspan by using repurposed drugs (e.g., metformin, rapamycin, AKG…). For instance, metformin is currently a widely used drug for treating people with type two diabetes. However, it has been repurposed to improve longevity. Researchers in this area are expecting to deliver therapies in the short term. A second group will include research organizations like Genflow Biosciences aiming for more radical outcomes in slowing the aging process using more innovative methodologies such as gene therapy and novel peptides. A third group will include more ambitious organizations, like Altos Labs, because working to not only slow down but also reverse the aging process. However, they expect outcomes across a much longer timeframe.
Andrii: What is the known science behind aging? Which breakthroughs in understanding biology and progress in various technologies enabled this trend of tackling aging? I think, a couple of decades ago, this topic was literally non-existent. Nobody seriously thought about it. What has changed?
Eric: Nowadays, there is an overall better understanding of the biology of aging and what drives it, for instance, senescence, mitochondria, or DNA damage repair. Moreover, today we benefit from our capacity to apply AI and deep learning to the biology of aging to help solve challenges. In addition, we have more reliable tools to measure biological age (as opposed to chronological age).
The culmination of these advances is that the longevity sector, which is set to become a billion-dollar industry, has enjoyed sustained growth in recent years. Further to being driven by breakthrough science, the sector has also been buoyed by favorable demographic changes, such as the growth of aging populations which has brought the topic of longevity to the fore. We are at a tipping point where we'll see breakthroughs in products and therapies that could act upon aging.
Andrii: What does Genflow do? Tell us about your company's research and, maybe, some milestones to be mentioned. How do you perceive your company's place in the longevity industry?
Eric: Genflow became the first pure-play longevity company to list in Europe following a public float on the London Stock Exchange. Most, if not all, of the serious companies tackling aging are based in the US, where longevity is becoming mainstream, but Europe remains an empty field. Genflow is the first European company aiming to fill the gap and its treatment will positively impact lives through improved healthspan. We want to be the longevity reference company for Europe.
The quality of our work is also evidenced by the number of non-dilutive grants our partners or we have received to further our programs, with one from the Applied Research Programme of Enterprise Estonia, an Estonian governmental institution designed to stimulate business growth in the country, and a substantial grant from the regional government of southern Belgium.
Our science focuses on the Sirtuin-6 (SIRT6) gene mutation, and more specifically, a variant of the SIRT6 gene found in centenarians, to develop a product that could repair DNA damage, boost epigenetic, and potentially extend individual healthspan by 25%. We plan to be in human clinical trials within two years in two different indications: the treatment of Werner Syndrome, a disease of accelerated aging, and secondly also, the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a fibrotic fatty liver disease.
As a result, this is a very dynamic space, and we have partnerships with highly experienced research centers and longevity funds. In the last year, we have entered into collaborative and scientific research agreements with some of the most prestigious organizations in the longevity biotechnology space.
Andrii: I know there is a battle to call aging a disease, formally speaking. They say it would open a world of opportunities for progress in this field. Do you agree with this idea? Isn't it too radical to suddenly tag everyone on the planet as unhealthy just like that?
Eric: The ‘battle’ surrounding wording and whether aging is a disease is largely an irrelevant distraction. Whatever the word for aging or its category, what is important is that we can extend life expectancy and support healthier aging for everyone. Our mission is to assist people in leading better lives and to prevent them from having a difficult death.
Andrii: Recently, I read a book by Dr. David Sinclair, “Lifespan: Why We Age―and Why We Don't Have To,” and I found his "information theory of aging" quite interesting. What do you think about it?
Eric: I also adored the book that David Sinclair, a distinguished academic in the field of aging, wrote. The book was released in 2019, and it is incredible to see how far aging research has come in just four years. In his book, Sinclair reveals a bold new theory for why we age, suggesting that the aging hallmarks are symptoms of epigenetic changes. He explains that aging is a disease and that disease is treatable. I completely agree with his theory. At Genflow, we also believe that aging is plastic and that we can reverse it.
Andrii: If we, indeed, succeed in notable life extension, it will change everything, including society and the economy. Is the world ready for it? What steps should be taken today by communities and governments to prepare for longer life?
Eric: The real issue is that our world is not ready to support a large aging population with multiple co-morbidities. This is the situation as we speak today. Moreover, it is a problem that is accelerating due to demographic shifts. We must urgently increase the healthspan of our elderly population.
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At the moment, organizations such as the FDA and MHRA that set regulations and from which permission is required do not view aging as a risk factor. As a result, the stance of such regulatory agencies has been among the main barriers in the past. The fact that aging is a risk factor for infectious diseases and that an older person’s immune system does not respond as well as that of a young person, however, has in recent years been dramatically illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic, we see that authorities are beginning to recognize aging as a risk factor, which is a significant motivator. Because science is developing at a breakneck pace, when this occurs, there will be a significant change.
Andrii: On a side note, what advice can you give to our readers to live longer than would be helpful already today? Until we all wait for major scientific breakthroughs to translate into publicly available anti-aging treatments?
Eric: Until anti-aging therapy becomes available, our best approach can be straightforward lifestyle modifications. For example, practice intermittent fasting; avoid smoking; sleep for at least 8 hours; exercise regularly and at the right intensity; consume less sugar and meat, and last but not least, engage in as many social interactions as possible.
Topics: Emerging Technologies