Humans have always been obsessed with stalling death.
It's something countless characters and historical figures have sought, from Gilgamesh to Juan Ponce de Leon. The fascination has endured in the modern world too, with the US longevity sector worth an estimated $7.1 trillion. Not surprisingly, the tech industry is vying for a piece of the lucrative pie, with companies like Human Longevity, Google-funded Calico and Jeff Bezos-backed Unity Biotechnology seeking ways for people to live longer, healthier lives.
Now a new biotechnology company called Celularity, led by Human Longevity co-founders Dr. Bob Hariri and Dr. Peter Diamandis (who is also ), has entered the playing field. The business began within biopharmaceutical company Celgene before it was spun off. Celularity is officially launching this month with a board that includes former Apple CEO John Sculley, ex-FDA commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach and founder of Alphabet's venture capital arm Bill Maris. It announced $250 million in venture capital funding on Thursday.
Celularity, based in Warren, New Jersey, is using stem cells from postpartum placentas to regenerate damaged and aged tissues. The treatments have the ability to reverse life-threatening conditions like cancer and Crohn's disease and to "ultimately extend the human life span," the company said.
The use of stem cells, which can develop into any cell type including muscle cells and brain cells, has long been controversial. Embryonic stem cells, which are more versatile than adult stem cells, are derived from human embryos and can result in their destruction. President George W. Bush's administration strictly limited embryonic stem cell research, and the pushback led many scientists to search for other sources, such as cord blood and placentas. Regardless, stem cells have remained a promising means of tackling diseases.
Celularity's founders said their sourcing methods help avoid controversy. Procuring stem cells from postpartum placentas, which are typically discarded, means there's no risk to a donor, said Hariri. Plus, unlike embryonic stem cells, placenta cells can be taken from any placenta and injected into anyone without the risk of rejection.
Placentas also offer a practically limitless source of stem cells, given there are nearly 4 million births a year in the US alone. According to Celularity, one placenta from a healthy birth can generate more than 100,000 medical treatments. The abundance of cells also means treatments can be more affordable and immediately available, the company said.
"In terms of scalability, economics, biological properties and quality of material, placenta is really unchallenged as a source" of stem cells, Hariri said.
Celularity's work is divided into three parts, with the first being biosourcing. It owns LifebankUSA, a cord blood and placental blood and tissue bank that enables families to store postpartum biomaterials. Parents also have the option to consent to donating placental stem cells and cord blood for public use. The company makes a profit from the private biomaterials banking, not from the public donation, Hariri said.
Second, Celularity creates products from placenta tissue, such as Biovance and Interfyl, to boost the body's regenerative process by treating issues like severe wounds and burns. These treatments are currently available through specific medical partners.
The company is also using placenta cells in cellular medicine to treat conditions like cancer and Crohn's disease. These cell therapy treatments are undergoing Food and Drug Administration approval, which could be completed by year's end.
Research led by Hariri has shown that the number of stem cells in our bodies decreases as we age and that this is directly connected to the body's functionality. By administering stem cells as a person gets older, Hariri said, the functionality of organs and tissues could be restored amid the aging process and, in turn, extend life span. Stem cells from unrelated donors can also be used on a person to boost regenerative function.
If placental stem cells offer so many benefits, why has it taken so long for them to be used? It essentially comes down to a lack of time and money. Hariri said it takes about a generation for a scientific breakthrough to make it to a clinical setting. In addition, many discoveries never leave the lab because of inadequate funding. "Not a lot of VCs fund early-stage science," he said. The funding behind Celularity will help bring the therapies to market.
Hariri said it's difficult to estimate how much longer someone could live with these treatments. But in early animal studies, the life span of rats was increased by 30 percent to 40 percent by injecting them with cells each month after sexual maturity. That could translate to an additional 20 to 30 years of high-quality health in humans, he said.
"The objective is to make 100 years of age an extremely achievable goal for people, but to allow their biologic functionality to work like it did when they were decades younger," Hariri said.
"We're getting so much more out of life today than our ancestors did," he added. "Why would you want to give that up?"
Clarification at 7:15 a.m. PT: The $250 million is its total VC funding to date.
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