Unity Nabs $116M To Bring “Diseases of Aging” Drugs Into Human Trials

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Unity Biotechnology launched earlier this year to tackle common diseases such as knee arthritis, glaucoma, and clogged arteries in a new way. The company said Thursday it has raised $116 million in a Series B funding round.

Unity wants to kill cells that have gone dormant but continue to produce chemicals that cause damaging inflammation in the pockets of the body where the cells accumulate. Researchers affiliated with the firm published a paper today in the journal Science to show that knocking out the dormant, or senescent, cells can change the course of atherosclerosis—the build-up of plaque inside arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke.

The work was performed in mice. Unity has not yet tested its senescent cell-killing drugs, which it calls senolytic medicines, in humans. It is aiming for its first trials in 12 to 18 months in osteoarthritis and eye disease, according to a spokesman.

Two of the paper’s authors, Judith Campisi of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and Jan van Deursen of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, are Unity scientific co-founders.

Senescence is widely thought to be a protective measure against cancer. If there’s risk of a cell turning cancerous, because of rapid division or stress such as radiation, it goes dormant. As we get older, senescent cells accumulate in various niches of the body.

Unity is also making changes at the top. Co-founder Ned David (pictured) is shifting from CEO to president, with chairman Keith Leonard taking over as CEO. David and Leonard, as well as some of Unity’s top investors at Arch Venture Partners and Venrock, were all part of Kythera Biopharmaceuticals. Allergan (NYSE: AGN) bought the cosmetic drug company in 2015 for $2.1 billion, mainly to gain rights to deoxycholic acid (Kybella), an injection that reduces double-chin fat.

Unity is trying to position itself as an anti-aging company—to fight “diseases of aging” and “extend healthspan” are stated goals—although it’s not clear how its approach, other than directing drugs at an unproven biological target, will differ from companies looking to fight any disease that shortens life span. A spokesman said that David will focus on “thinking big” with the company’s platform.

Arch and Venrock are participating in the B round along with Fidelity, Jeff Bezos’s personal investment fund Bezos Expeditions, and others.