Novato startup Unity, China biotech team on aging treatments

Rob O'Brien works in the Unity Biotechnology laboratory in Novato to learn how drug molecules affect senescent cells. (James Dunn / The Business Journal, March 2016)

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Unity Biotechnology, a startup based at Novato’s Buck Institute for Research on Aging, is teaming with a China-based biopharmaceutical company on treatments for age-accentuated ailments.

Unity has formed a worldwide collaboration with Ascentage Pharma, a clinical-stage company focused on apoptosis-targeted oncology drug discovery and development, to develop senolytic treatments. Those drugs go after cells that have stopped dividing and are linked to age-related afflictions such as osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis and eye and kidney diseases.

As part of the deal, the companies will also form a joint venture for the development and commercialization of senolytic drugs in China. Ascentage will acquire an equity interest in Unity, and Unity will make an investment in Ascentage. Robert Nelsen, co-founder and managing director of ARCH Venture Partners and a Unity board member, will join the Ascentage board as an observer. Other terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

“We have been tracking the science at Ascentage for some time and are incredibly pleased to enter this collaboration with them,” Nelsen said. “We are confident that they will complement what we are doing at Unity to drive major improvements in the treatment of diseases of aging to impact healthspan.”

“Healthspan” refers to the years of one’s life in good health.

Unity (unitybiotechnology.com), started in 2011 and backed by ARCH Venture Partners, Venrock and Wuxi Healthcare Ventures, for four years has been investigating the link between senescence and aging and has demonstrated in animal models that clearing senescent cells reverses or prevents many age-related pathologies.

“At Unity, we have demonstrated that senescence is a key mechanism in aging and age-related disease,” said Nathaniel David, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO. “We have evaluated a wide panel of drug candidates that clear senescent cells, and Ascentage’s compounds are some of the best we’ve seen. Access to their compound library through this collaboration will significantly accelerate our efforts to develop drugs to improve healthspan by halting or reversing several age-related diseases.”

Ascentage (ascentagepharma.com) has been working for over a decade to create small-molecule drugs targeting programmed cell death and has established a best-in-class compound library and clinical-stage lead compounds for oncology therapeutics.

We will continue our efforts to advance clinical stage compounds for targeted anti-cancer therapy and are very pleased to work with Unity for several unmet medical indications outside of the oncology space, with each aging-related disease potentially representing a multibillion-dollar market,” said Ascentage Chairman and CEO Dajun Yang.

The Ascentage R&D team has a proven track record in structure-based drug design and lead optimization of small-molecule drug candidates targeting protein-protein interactions, according to Unity.

“We chose Ascentage as our partner in this exciting anti-aging field not only because of its cutting-edge technology, but also because this partnership will allow us to reach a global market,” David said.

Eric Zhao, partner of Oriza Seed Capital and board member of Ascentage, said the company will “bring extra value to everyone.”

Currently, Ascentage has treatments based on four molecules in phase 1 and 2 trials in the U.S., Australia and China, and another four molecules at IND reviewing or IND-enabling stages in those countries.

It focuses on clinically validated cancer targets. In development are inhibitors to a number of key proteins, including IAP, Bcl-2/Bcl-xL and MDM2-p53, which restore a tumor cell’s apoptotic program; second- and third-generation kinase inhibitors that overcome mutant resistance in cancer therapy; and inhibitors to epigenetic targets with enormous potential in oncology therapy.

Unity’s initial focus is on creating senolytic medicines. Its management team has experience building companies and developing medicines that have moved 91 therapeutic candidates into human clinical trials and developed 13 FDA-approved medicines.