A new company called Rejuvenate Bio wants to make dogs live forever—and humans could be next.
The key to eternal life may lie in a cocker spaniel. A new startup co-founded by famous geneticist George Church is trying to reverse aging—not in humans, but in dogs. Our four-legged friends are the perfect stepping stone to turn theory into treatment. “They’re the large animals that are closest to humans in their environment. They live in our homes, eat our food and are emotionally aware—if a mouse has a bad day, you won’t necessarily know, but with a pet dog you will,” said George Church.
While most companies focused on anti-aging research are still collecting data, Rejuvenate Bio is taking the fast track and have already completed clinical trials in mice. They have now begun testing their gene therapy in dogs, though George Church will not reveal how many dogs have been treated so far.
Rejuvenate Bio is keeping the lid on details about their gene therapy, though George Church reveals that they’re working on a subset of about 300 genes identified in GenAge, a database of aging-related genes that is maintained by Church’s longtime collaborator João Pedro de Magalhães.
Technically, aging is not viewed as a disease on its own by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so Rejuvenate Bio is focusing on treating a range of age-related ailments in dogs, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and kidney disease. “Young animals have a completely different response to all kinds of pre-disease stages, where they basically fix them before they become a problem,” he said. If Rejuvenate Bio gets its way, even old dogs will beat these kinds of ailments as if they were still puppies.
Rejuvenate Bio’s focus on dogs is partly practical—it’s very difficult to get approval from the FDA to do studies on humans, and dogs’ shorter lifespan makes them better-suited for visible results from a therapy. “If we went to the FDA and said, ‘this therapy will extend human life with 30 years,’ they would tell us to come back with a 30-year clinical trial,” George Church explained.
But there’s clearly a business side to extending the life of Fido—the pet industry is a 70-billion-dollar industry in the US alone, according to American Pet Product Association and the market is growing rapidly. Certain dog breeds are prone to ailments such as heart disease and Rejuvenate Bio could potentially upend that. George Church said:
People care deeply for their dogs and spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat their pets at their end of life, just to keep them alive for a few extra weeks. But what they really want is age reversal.
Using pets in clinical trials raises some ethical questions, and this concerns Lisa Moses. She’s a veterinarian and bioethicist at Harvard Medical School and she’s not entirely impressed by humans’ track record of handling companion animals. “We live in a world where there are far more dogs than there are homes for. In that light, does it make sense to have dogs that live a really long time? If your dog lives 40-50 years, what happens when you’re no longer there to take care of it?” she asked.
Lisa Moses has met with the founders of Rejuvenate Bio to do some informal (unpaid) consulting and she applauds the researchers for actually keeping the ethical issues in mind. However, she finds it quite plausible that George Church and his cofounder Noah Davidsohn are close to being able to reverse aging in dogs, so some issues need to be addressed. “The question is, will this really benefit the dogs or is it strictly a benefit to people?”
Pets are a legal grey zone when it comes to medical research and Lisa Moses explains that a lab rat actually has more rights during a clinical trial than a pet, mainly because US property laws give the owner the right to make decisions for their pet. “When you do clinical trials on laboratory animals there are defined rules to stop the research if something bad happens and the animal will then be treated or euthanized. But those rules do not exist for pets,” she said.
Humans are Next
Though Rejuvenate Bio is targeting dogs as a market on their own, George Church isn’t shy about the fact that the ultimate goal is to reverse aging in humans. He said:
As soon as we’re done with dog trials, we’re moving into humans. That could happen in as little as a couple of years.
His confidence is based on the fact that aging is clearly biology, not physics. “Mice age and die at two years old and whales at 200 years. It’s clear that you can infinitely renew tissue, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what the rules are,” George Church said. He noted, that when he started doing research in the 70s, it seemed laughable to ever make genome sequencing even at a billion dollars, and now it can be done for around 600 dollars. “If you don’t do something radical, you’re not going to do a lot of good,” he said.