With contributions from James Smith, a recent Oxford University graduate and current SENS Research Foundation Summer Scholar working at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
‘Bay Area biotechnology’ is a description that conjures images of the proud Hoover Tower at Stanford, and the iconic Genentech sign marking “Birthplace of Biotechnology,” set against the backdrop of lingering Californian sunsets. One is unlikely to reflect on the imposing silhouette of the Levi Stadium in San Jose; however, this may be about to change.
Overlooked by the newly built stadium in Santa Clara, CA, the inaugural Rejuvenation Biotechnology conference, hosted by the SENS Research Foundation, is underway as George Church, keynote speaker, addresses around 300 researchers, investors, regulators, clinicians and everything in between. His presence here is a reminder of the growing importance of this new field of anti-aging research spearheaded by, amongst others, the charismatic Aubrey De Grey.
The newly constructed Levi’s stadium, home of the 49ers and backdrop to the inaugural Rejuvenation Biotechnology conference in Santa Clara, CA. (photo from webpronews.com)
Church discusses the potentially important role of the epigenome – chemical modification of the genome that doesn’t involve changing the sequence – as a contributor to aging. In particular, he highlights the role of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) in reprogramming cells to a younger state. In his words, “if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last year,” CRISPR is an RNA-based technology that allows endogenous targeted gene editing and is emerging as a ‘transitional’ tool, equivalent in potential impact to next generation sequencing. CRISPR could revolutionize the way we do science in many areas, including regenerative medicine.
The technology is inspired by a bacterial system that essentially uses it as a form of memory to defend against viral invasion. Since its serendipitous discovery, the system has been developed by many groups to allow highly accurate and specific genome editing, including modification of the epigenome. Multiple companies have recently been spawned as a result, including Editas, George Church’s own enterprise.
This in an excellent example of the need for research throughout the translation pathway from basic science to clinical implementation. Without the relatively esoteric research that led to the identification of CRISPR, it is unlikely that we would have discovered this system – we weren’t looking for it. Without commercial incentives to improve the technology, it would not be widely applicable and would thus be wasted.
The conference’s focus on aging is fundamentally different from others taken in the past. Addressing the root causes of aging, which are considered to be the damages that accrue as a natural consequence of being alive, is the aim. Without wanting to cure ‘life,’ addressing this problem might seem challenging. But technology like CRISPR could potentially allow us to wind back the clock on epigenetic change; similarly, cell therapy, in various ways, could allow us to reverse damage associated with the aging process.
The conference unites speakers and delegates from all sectors, scientific and commercial, working towards the same goal of addressing age-related diseases. Over the course of three days, the conference evaluated leading strategies – including cell-based therapies – to treat dementia, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular diseases, as well as approaches to implement them through durable and low risk business models.
Watch for upcoming posts from the event, and with such an interdisciplinary group present, perhaps we’ll witness the birthplace of a new chapter in the Bay Area biotech revolution.
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