New CEO of Novato's Buck Institute tackles aging
'Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four? You'll be older too.'
That Beatles song turns 50 this year and its writer, Paul McCartney, turns 75 in June. George Harrison, former Beatle, died in 2001 at age 58 of lung cancer and a brain tumor. Italian Emma Morano, the oldest known living person, had her 117th birthday in November.
Cancer is one of many maladies that plague us as we age: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, atherosclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and hypertension. Eric Verdin, newly appointed CEO at Novato-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging, aims to curb some of these diseases.
'The aging field has been heavy on promise' but delivered scant results, said Verdin, who worked as associate director at San Francisco-based Gladstone Institute for Virology and Immunology. There he studied the role of diet in aging, along with Alzheimer's.
Verdin, a physician and professor at University of California, San Francisco, replaces former CEO Brian Kennedy, who served about six years and resigned in October. A month later, the board announced Verdin's appointment along with pledges from a few board members totaling $11 million to shore up Buck's strained budget, which totals about $35 million a year.
Raising money is essential, Verdin said. He pointed to the recent home run by Unity Biotechnology, a Buck spinoff co-founded by Nathaniel 'Ned' David. Unity raised $116 million from six investors in a funding round reported in October. David served as Unity CEO until he became president in October, and Keith Leonard took the CEO role. Leonard and David had co-founded Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, acquired in 2015 by Allergan for $2.1 billion.
Leonard will steer Unity's push for clinical trials on two drugs, Verdin said. Unity's science takes aim at arthritis and glaucoma by killing off senescent cells that foster inflammation and disease. The company, founded in 2011 and with offices in San Francisco and at The Buck, has raised a total of $128 million.
Unity has powerhouse funding backers, including ARCH Venture Partners; Fidelity Investments; Mayo Clinic Ventures; Bezos Expeditions, led by Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder; and Venrock and Founders Fund, headed by Peter Thiel, a 49-year-old San Francisco billionaire, Stanford Law graduate and PayPal co-founder.
'Leading this place, I want to push us into medically relevant aging research,' Verdin said. That would go beyond research on C. elegans roundworms and mice studied by numerous faculty members at The Buck. Verdin suggests aligning the institute with organizations that could conduct human clinical trials or use human samples.
Verdin serves as a consultant to Calico, the Google-backed aging-research company founded by Google and headed by CEO Art Levinson.
'I haven't interacted with them since I've been here,' Verdin said after three weeks on the job. 'We have a bunch of tenants here. I would love to get them more involved in the scientific community, not just renting space but intricately woven into our fabric.'
Calico has been notoriously secretive since its 2013 founding.
'They can be secretive about key issues,' Verdin said, 'but they can still collaborate. We are a lot more than a building. There are incredible people here.'
He intends to promote more sponsorship agreements between the Buck and corporations such as Calico. Funding is difficult to find because anti-aging science is 'radically new,' Verdin said.
'We are at an inflection point,' he said. 'That's my prediction. Let's say Unity generates one drug that fights arthritis. That would be a validation of this whole model. It will happen in the next five years.'
Glucophage, or metformin, is a diabetes medicine used to control blood sugar and shows promise.
'The biggest surprise was that a diabetic on metformin lived longer than non-diabetics,' Verdin said. 'Maybe metformin has an anti-aging effect. People tested this in mice. It increases lifespan.'
The FDA supports a large-scale study of metformin's effects on nondiabetics, but such research needs $50 million, he said.
'In my vision of this place, people will realize they were right all along,' Verdin said. 'We have not delivered yet.' Then 'people will rally and realize there is incredible value to this.'
GLADSTONE MERGER DEAD
Some in the North Bay have expressed concerns Verdin might be some sort of — as he characterized it — Trojan horse, preparing for a merger with Gladstone
'I'm not here as a member of Gladstone,' he said. 'Those merger talks are dead. I was excited when the talks collapsed. I'm running the show. It allows us to keep our integrity, our autonomy and name.' He was the only faculty member at Gladstone who researched aging.