Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School has co-founded a new startup company, Rejuvenate Bio, which has plans to reverse aging in dogs as a way to market anti-aging therapies for our furry friends before bringing them to us.
Dogs first, humans next
The company has already carried some initial tests on beagles and plans to reverse aging by using gene therapy to add new instructions to their DNA. If it works, the goal is ultimately to try the same approach in people, and George Church may be one the first human volunteers.
“Dogs are a market in and of themselves,” Church stated during the recent Radical Wellness event in Boston. “It’s not just a big organism close to humans. It’s something that people will pay for, and the FDA process is much faster. We’ll do dog trials, and that’ll be a product, and that’ll pay for scaling up in human trials.”
Church and the team also understand that developing therapies that address aging in humans and getting them approved would not be so easy. It would take too long to prove something worked. “You don’t want to go to the FDA and say we extend life by 20 years. They’d say, ‘Great, come back in 20 years with the data,'” Church said during the same event.
So, the team has taken a different tack; rather than aiming to increase human lifespan as its main focus, it is instead focusing on the typical age-related diseases common to dogs. The hope is that by targeting the aging processes directly, these diseases could be entirely prevented from developing. If successful, this would lend additional supporting evidence that directly treating aging to prevent age-related diseases could also work in humans.
Working on rejuvenation
In 2015, the Church lab at Harvard began testing rejuvenation therapies on mice by using gene therapy to deliver CRISPR, a new and superior gene editing system. Since then, the lab has been engaged in dozens of studies on aging with a view towards the rejuvenation of aged animals.
The team has used gene therapies to add additional instructions into the DNA of aged mice, using these instructions to regulate and modify the activity of various genes. The researchers increase or inhibit target gene expression, depending on its contribution to aging, in a bid to restore gene expression and the production of secreted molecules to youthful levels.
The lab has been working on a collection of over 60 different gene therapies and has been testing their effects both individually and in combinations. The team intends to publish a report on an approach that extends mouse lifespan by modifying two genes that protect against heart and kidney failure, obesity, and diabetes. Professor Church has commented that the results of this study are “pretty eye-popping”.
The new startup has been contacting dog breeders, veterinarians, and ethicists to discuss its plans for restoring youth and increasing the lifespan of dogs. Its plan is to gain a foothold in the pet market and then use that as the basis for moving therapies to people.
Starting a dog trial
Last year, the lab contacted the owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, a breed of toy dogs, with plans for a trial of gene therapy to combat mitral valve disease, a common heart condition that kills almost 50% of this breed at age ten. The nature of the gene therapy is not yet public knowledge, though it may involve inhibiting the cytokine TGF-beta, which facilitates the scarring and thickening of heart valves, and the team has tested a similar therapy on mice to stop heart damage.
Some readers may recall that inhibiting TGF-beta also produced tissue regeneration in brain and muscle when tested by the Conboy lab in 2015 . The Conboys famously demonstrated this and the fact that balancing blood factors to youthful levels encourages tissue rejuvenation. It may be that by reducing levels of this cytokine to those seen in youth, this heart condition may be prevented in these spaniels.
Earlier this year, company owners Davidsohn and Oliver traveled to Chicago to the breed’s national show, where several thousand dollars were raised to begin the trial. The president of the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, Patty Kanan, said that this research is “seriously meaningful to the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club.”
There have, of course, been the usual detractors of this initiative, such as skeptics and fortune tellers predicting that it will not work before it is even tested. Thankfully, the people behind this new company, which is backed by the expertise and vision of George Church, plan to proceed and see if the data can prove the detractors wrong.
Fortune favors the bold, and these are the people in the field getting the important therapies tested. If this pays off, the potential is huge, because if a therapy works in dogs, you can be sure that the pressure to move it to humans will soon pile up.
 Yousef, H., Conboy, M. J., Morgenthaler, A., Schlesinger, C., Bugaj, L., Paliwal, P., … & Schaffer, D. (2015). Systemic attenuation of the TGF-β pathway by a single drug simultaneously rejuvenates hippocampal neurogenesis and myogenesis in the same old mammal. Oncotarget, 6(14), 11959.