Silicon Valley Wants Dogs to Live Longer So Humans Can, Too
May 24, 2021 (Bloomberg Businessweek) — As the tech industry has matured, people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with developing ways to stop the human aging process. It started with really long bike rides and intermittent fasting, but some venture capitalists and startup employees have moved on to taking dozens of pills every morning, or injecting stem cells into their brain, or infusing their body with the blood of the young and virile.
This brand of life-extension experimentation remains fringe, probably because it’s weird and there’s not a ton of evidence any of it works. But Celine Halioua has a plan to take the field mainstream, and it involves dogs. Her startup, Cellular Longevity Inc., is developing treatments that extend the life span of dogs while also making them more active in their later years. Should such treatments work in canines, Halioua, 26, expects consumers and regulators will be more favorably disposed to similar techniques being used on humans.
“Dogs are unquestionably considered the best model of human aging,” says Halioua, who studied neuroscience and then worked for a longevity-focused venture capital fund. “We have co-evolved with them, and they have a shared environment with us. They also develop age-related diseases over time. If we can do this for dogs, people will want it, too.” Her company, operating under the brand Loyal, has raised $11 million and plans to start trials in early 2022 on two compounds with potential anti-aging properties. Halioua declines to identify them.
The main barrier to developing anti-aging drugs and therapies for people is that we live too long. Drug companies are reluctant to invest in clinical trials that stretch over decades, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is more comfortable with medications that tackle a specific illness or symptom, rather than something as broad and abstract as aging. As a result, a number of promising anti-aging compounds have been largely untested on people in clinical settings.
The notion of running these types of trials on dogs first is not entirely new. Over the past several years, about 30,000 dog owners have entered their pets into the Dog Aging Project, an academic research study backed by $25 million from the National Institutes of Health. The project examines how genetic and environmental factors affect dogs’ aging processes, and it’s also running a trial in which about 200 middle-aged dogs will receive the compound rapamycin, which is used by people to prevent organ transplant rejection and some types of cancer. “Rapamycin seems to delay or reverse aging in pretty much every tissue where it has been looked at,” says Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the University of Washington and the project’s co-director.
Despite its potential, rapamycin has developed a poor reputation among doctors. It causes a lot of side effects in organ transplant patients, who’ve suffered from maladies ranging from mouth sores to pseudodiabetic states.
Kaeberlein, who’s also an adviser to Cellular Longevity, says this result occurs because of the high doses organ transplant patients receive. He expects fewer issues with the low doses in the pills his team is sneaking into the peanut butter they feed the dogs. He’s used rapamycin himself to reduce inflammation and pain in his shoulder. “I’m a believer,” he says, though he stresses that his experience should not be taken as a recommendation for others to conduct similar experiments.
Canine studies involving caloric restriction have shown that a dog’s life span can increase by almost two years, while also delaying cancer, degenerative bone disease, and other conditions. The expectation scientists share is that a combination of therapies would show far more dramatic results. “We might be talking a 50% or 60% or 70% effect on life span,” Kaeberlein says, adding that it’s very difficult to predict without doing the trials.
Halioua was working on a doctorate at the University of Oxford, studying the economics of gene therapies, when she dropped out in 2019 to work for the Longevity Fund, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco. Halioua helped research and invest in more than 20 companies working on aging for Longevity, then pitched her own startup idea to Laura Deming, a managing partner at the firm. Deming was skeptical at first. She didn’t have pets and struggled with the idea that pet owners would pay much to get their dogs to live longer. “I did not get it,” she says.
Halioua eventually persuaded Deming to invest, then she broke away from the firm to start Cellular Longevity in 2020. The company will look to recruit hundreds of pet owners for the studies, aiming to get a therapy approved for dogs by 2024. The first will target larger breeds, which have a shorter life span, while the second will be for all breeds. The hope is that pet owners could expect these animals to live longer—anywhere from six months to three years—and also have better, more active lives.
Halioua shies away from predicting exactly how much she thinks a dog’s life can eventually be expanded, but she tamps down any expectation of a sci-fi result. “We are not going to make 80-year-old dogs,” she says. She’s also vague on pricing, saying only that Loyal’s products will be “affordable but not dirt cheap” and will come down in price over time.
A major appeal of using dogs for the trials is that clinical studies can be conducted in three to five years, with dogs living at home under normal conditions. This is a major step forward from the laboratory mice often used for these types of experiments, which are young and must be bred or altered to have age-related illnesses.
Deming says the dog-first approach could be the key to helping people warm up to anti-aging technology. “If it works, it changes the whole psychology around aging drugs in general,” she says. “It could be this important moment where these drugs become more mainstream.”
Loyal is holding out the possibility of eventually expanding its business to humans. In the meantime, Halioua is happy not to be working only with mice. “We have extended the life spans of mice hundreds of times,” she says. “Nobody cares outside of the field because it’s a mouse. Doing this in an organism that people care about could change a lot about the aging field. I want to prove a point.”