Bay Area firm at forefront of science seeking arthritis cure
In his youth, Tim Landerville played center field for a Philadelphia Phillies minor league team, sprinting after fly balls in the grassy outfields he patrolled in the 1970s.
Now 67, the Santa Rosa man, who stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs over 200 pounds, said he “can’t run at all” — hobbled by a pair of arthritic knees. Going downstairs is painful and walking through airports on business trips is an ordeal.
Landerville, who took acetaminophen and glucosamine for years, is now receiving more potent injections and contemplating surgical replacement of both knees.
A less-invasive and painful option to treat his advanced osteoarthritis would be welcome. “If it were true, I would jump at it,” he said. “Absolutely.”
One potential cure to a disease that afflicts 14 million Americans and costs $27 billion a year to treat is a compound code named UBX0101, the product of seven years of research at a Brisbane-based company, Unity Biotechnology, a startup focused on relieving the diseases of aging.
If it clears the rigorous testing process mandated by the government, UBX0101 would be the first widespread payoff from senescence, a branch of science that targets certain cells in the human body as the underlying cause of aging and the handful of related diseases that end life.
Osteoarthritis is not deadly, but it is a major discomfort for the elderly as well as people still in the prime of their lives. A successful treatment in a major joint such as the knee would likely forestall arthritis in other joints, including the hips and hands.
UBX0101 is now in human clinical trial with about 48 volunteers. Judith Campisi, a scientific founder and shareholder in Unity, called the drug a breakthrough in the search for a cure to “one of the most painful consequences of old age.”
Campisi, a pioneer in the science of senescence, is now at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. Her work has proved that senescent cells, which reside in small numbers throughout the human body, secrete proteins that trigger inflammation and alter the function in neighboring cells, a prelude to fatal maladies, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and adult-onset diabetes.
Conversely, she also has showed that, senescent cells, which increase in number with age, also afford people a shield against cancer since they cannot divide.
She and Jan van Duersen, a professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, found a way to genetically engineer mice so their senescent cells could be removed, a step that Van Duersen showed increased the rodents’ lifespan by 20 to 35 percent.
In another experiment, van Duersen compared two mice from the same litter, finding the one with no senescent cells sleek and healthy near the end of its life, while the other was bent, blind and crippled with a failing heart and kidneys.
Unity co-founder Nathaniel David, an inventor and entrepreneur, was impressed by their work, calling it the “coolest biology” he had ever seen. Unity, his fifth startup, was founded in 2011 with more than $300 million in funding, including investments by billionaires Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
David, a Harvard and UC Berkeley-trained molecular and cell biologist, sold two of his first four companies — one that produced a diabetes drug, the other a remedy for double chins — for well over $2 billion. His lone business whiff is a company that managed to make a crude oil substitute from algae but was thwarted when oil prices plummeted.