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Discovery & Development Formulation, Small Molecules

The Fountain of Youth

True immortality may always exist beyond our reach, but research suggests that human biology can at least be optimized for greater longevity. And a growing number of biotech companies are investing in research that could prevent and reverse the aging process in humans, including UK-based company Five Alarm Bio. 

The company says it is committed to boosting the body’s defenses against the damage of aging, and its research focuses on how the healthy life of cells can be extended. Though anti-aging research may seem like science fiction, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. To paraphrase J. B. S. Haldane: “The future will not only be stranger than we imagine, it will be stranger than we *can* imagine.”

We spoke to Five Alarm Bio CEO Janette Thomas about the company’s work. 

What’s the origin story of Five Alarm Bio? 

Five Alarm Bio was founded on William Bains’ vision to interconnect academic work on the fundamental chemistry of life with practical diseases of aging, and a drug molecule that could test the link between the two. Bains is our Chief Science Officer and has been involved in biology research for over 30 years. 

Is there too much focus on longer lifespans today as opposed to healthy lifespans?

Not exclusively; the two are linked. If people remain healthy and active in old age, the likelihood of a premature death diminishes drastically. However, if longer lifespans are plagued by chronic illness or disability, a lower quality of life in their extra years is to be expected. When approaching increasing human lifespans, there must be equal emphasis on improving the quality of life during those extra years. And that means investing in research and interventions that promote healthy aging that prevent or treat age-related diseases and conditions. 

Age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis are major drivers of disability and pose significant public health challenges among older adults. Therefore, investigations into immune-senescence, epigenetic changes, and senescent cells should be a core focus for future research as it impacts all age-related diseases.  

What do we know so far about the mechanisms of aging?

Aging affects every system in the body, and current research points to it being a system failure – not a failure of one pathway, molecule, or cell. The mechanisms of aging are complex and multifactorial, with several key processes contributing to aging, cellular dysfunction, and disease, including:

  • errors in DNA replication and repair accumulate over time
  • telomeres become critically short, leading to cellular death
  • changes in gene expression and epigenetic markers
  • senescent cells accumulate and produce inflammatory signals — chronic inflammation is a key hallmark of aging, and contributes to many age-related diseases
  • changes in mitochondria lead to decreased energy production and increased oxidative stress
  • maintenance of protein homeostasis becomes impaired leading to the accumulation of misfolded or damaged proteins.

What are the company’s plans and priorities for the coming years?

Our foundational science has shown that targeting the chemical damage of aging can modulate a range of fundamental aging processes. Using a model “probe” on primary human skin cells, our results suggest we can reduce cell senescence, the chemical damage that accumulates in aged cells, and the decline in an individual's ability to heal a “wound” in cell culture.

We have also collaborated with Magnitude Biosciences to test the effect of our probe on aging in the nematode worm C. elegans, which demonstrated that our probe extends the healthspan of C. elegans by ~40 percent.

These initial programs are in chronic wounds, sarcopenia, and an evaluation of whether this has the potential to be a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Our future programs will target this core technology to specific organ systems and their diseases. 

What are the realistic possibilities for this field of science?

Though anti-aging science has made significant progress in recent years, there are still limits to how far it can take us and how much we can predict. The average lifespan has risen consistently since the 1840s by approximately 2.5 years per decade. However, the maximum lifespan has not increased by the same degree, and the mortality of centenarians has remained constant in the UK for the last 40 years (even though the mortality for all ages below 90 years has declined — hence the longer lifespan). 

Increasing healthspan is a more interesting and beneficial possibility than continuously increasing lifespan. By improving overall health and reducing the burden of age-related diseases, anti-aging interventions may help people live well for their whole lives.

There are several realistic possibilities for the future of anti-aging science. As we learn more about the biological mechanisms of aging, it may be possible to develop targeted interventions for specific age-related diseases, or even interventions tailored to an individual’s genetics, microbiome, and other factors. These interventions may include small molecules, gene therapies, or other approaches that can slow or reverse the underlying disease processes. Biomarkers of aging may also be a useful tool for identifying people who are at risk of age-related diseases and for monitoring the effectiveness of anti-aging interventions.

Do you have any predictions for the future of healthcare and medicine?

It’s challenging to predict the future – many factors, such as technological advances, social trends, and policy changes, can influence these areas. I would like to see more personalized medicines, tailored to an individual's unique genetics, lifestyle, and other factors, which could lead to more effective treatments with fewer side effects. 

Additionally, the diagnostics available today could be hugely valuable if used routinely. Testing panels done every six months could pick up early signs of all sorts of diseases, in time for simple lifestyle modifications to reverse them before needing medication. I think people would make those lifestyle changes because they would see the measurable impact of their choices. The use of AI and machine learning algorithms could also be used to analyze large amounts of data from electronic health records, wearables, and other sources to identify patterns and predict health outcomes. Such “big data” could enable automated earlier diagnosis and treatment of age-related diseases.

Your question may be alluding to the area of science fiction. Taking a step away from our aim at Five Alarm Bio, try “The Long Habit of Living” by Joe Haldeman as perhaps a plausible “anti-aging” medicine story – albeit only for the rich and powerful! In reality, the future will be like nothing we imagine now. 

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About the Author
Jamie Irvine

Associate Editor, The Medicine Maker

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