As a millennial with limited orientation abilities but expertise with digital tools, I used Google Maps to find the venue, fearing that I would have no data and would get lost in Berlin, only to find out that I was only a couple of meters away from to the venue entrance.
The Undoing Aging 2019 conference took place on March 28-30 at Umspannwerk Alexanderplatz: a multi-level industrial setting, with metal stairs, funky lights, and a balcony overlooking the minimal conference hall. This gave me my first positive vibes.
Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation and Michael Greve of the Forever Healthy Foundation organized a three-day event that focused on the cellular and molecular repair of age-related damage in order to medically control aging. The conference brought together a diverse audience from all corners of the world: scientists, doctors, students, biotechs, startups, pharma, investors, the media, government representatives, policy makers, and anti-aging research enthusiasts; many of them were Russians, and their country was impressively represented there!
The conference kicked off with a warm welcome from the organizers and a keynote from Dr. Barzilai, who is famous in the field as the man who managed to convince the FDA to approve the first clinical trial to test the ability of metformin to slow down aging. He presented his research work on centenarians and the mission of Life Biosciences, to which he was appointed Chief Medical Advisor in 2018. Short talks followed, with Reason (his actual name) presenting the work of Repair Biotechnologies on thymus regeneration and atherosclerosis reversal. The next sessions focused on cells in peripheral blood and extracellular molecules, starting with Dr. Pawelec talking about rejuvenation of the immune system, which normally deteriorates with age. Dr. Mata from the University of London spoke about how integration of supramolecular chemistry and engineering can help investigate the biological processes of aging. The day closed with Dr. de Grey and Dr. Gladyshev from Harvard University debating on the critical topic of whether comprehensive repair damage is feasible.
Day two started with talks about cell therapy, featuring Dr. West from AgeX Therapeutics, a company that aspires to use pluripotent stem cells to treat the degenerative diseases of old age. By 11:30, the focus had shifted to DNA instability, with Dr. Shay changing the way we think about telomeres in aging and Dr. Gudkov introducing us to the role of the retrobiome in cell damage. During the short talks, Dr. Foks talked about the elimination of damaged cells in atherosclerosis using the FOXO4-DRI peptide; Dr. Ives, the CEO of Shift Bioscience, discussed his company’s strategy for mitochondria repair; and Dr. Gronska-Peski presented her work on neural reprogramming strategies.
Given the numerous advancements in removing senescent cells in the last few years, the topic of senolysis was in the spotlight for a good three hours; it was this session I was looking forward to, simply because of my own PhD. Dr. Cash, the CSO of Senolytx, introduced the company’s approaches: although he focused on the technology of nanoparticle-mediated killing of senescent cells, he also excited the audience with a promising immunotherapy approach. Dr. Campisi couldn’t be missed; with her calm voice, she updated us on the role of senescence in cancer and aging along with relevant therapeutic interventions. The evening found us trying to solve the Calment mystery: did Jeanne Calment, who had the longest-ever recorded lifespan (122 years!), really live so long, or was it all a fraud?
Day three, the last day, opened with new approaches to treat neurodegeneration and counteract oxidation. During the short talks, we heard from Dr. Sebastiano from Turn.Bio how epigenetic reprogramming can be used in a regulated manner to fight aging, notably pointing out that the focus should not be limited to senescent cell elimination, as those “zombie” cells “account only for 1% of the aged cell pool”. Dr. Fedichev from Gero presented insights on longitudinal analyses of aging trajectories, and Dr. Kheifets from Alkahest showed data supporting the therapeutic benefits of a novel plasma fraction in order to revert the brain dysfunction that comes with age.
The last couple of sessions looked at the full picture of developing an anti-aging therapy, a topic that is sadly often dismissed at conferences, focusing on how such advancements can reach their target through clinical translation. The session featured Dr. Chen-Tsai, CSO of Applied Stem Cell, and Dr. Danielyan, introducing us to novel gene insertion and cell delivery methods, respectively. Mr. Sethe elaborated on legal matters, and Prof. Barker from New Medicines Partners presented the steps involved in drug development and related considerations to ensure that no one gets “lost in translation”.
The Undoing Aging 2019 conference was like no other, featuring a unique diversity and a huge networking opportunity. The sessions ran flawlessly, and attendees mingled and exchanged cards and ideas at the poster exhibition, over great food and good glasses of resveratrol-rich wine. It is highly encouraging to see people from different backgrounds and across the globe coming together to share a common vision: to delay the onset of aging-related pathologies, thereby extending healthspan. This will be a long journey, especially until “aging” is recognized as a disease by the FDA. However, the community is growing stronger, supported by the media and initiatives such as Lifespan.io, the Academy for Health & Lifespan Research, and many other emerging initiatives, affirming that the ultimate goal is indeed achievable.