If you haven’t heard about Rejuvenate Bio until now, that’s because the firm is a stealth startup and purposefully stays out of the public eye to protect its intellectual property from rival companies. After previously experimenting with rejuvenation treatments on mice, Rejuvenate Bio has now turned its attention to man’s best friend and is undergoing a trial to reverse aging in dogs, MIT Technology Review reports.
Co-founded by the acclaimed Harvard geneticist George Church, Rejuvenate Bio aims to use gene therapy to make dogs “younger” by tweaking their DNA to add new instructions.
“We have already done a bunch of trials in mice and we are doing some in dogs, and then we’ll move on to humans,” Church told podcaster Rob Reid last month.
Known as the world’s most influential synthetic biologist, Church has made headlines with his past work, which includes the bold attempts to resurrect the woolly mammoth and rejuvenate mice with the help of the CRISPR gene-editing tool.
Although he said the current dog trial “is not a secret,” not much is known about it except that the new gene therapy has been tested on four beagles with the help of Tufts Veterinary School in Boston. Whether the treatment has been successful or not remains unclear due to the secretive nature of the Harvard startup.
Nevertheless, the Harvard-based Church lab plans to begin aging reversal tests in dogs by next year and if everything goes well, move on to human trials by 2022. The renowned geneticist made his intentions very clear ever since last year when he was interviewed by Elysium Health.
One of the main reasons why he chose to test his aging reversal gene therapy on pets is that showing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the treatment is successful and getting it approved for dogs would be the easiest first step towards human trials.
“Dogs are a market in and of themselves. It’s not just a big organism close to humans. It’s something people will pay for,” Church said in the 2017 interview, referring to the $72 billion a year U.S. pet care industry.
“And the FDA process is much faster for dogs than for humans — a little over a year versus nine years or so. We’ll do dog trials, and that’ll be a product, and that’ll pay for scaling up in human trials,” he pointed out.
According to MIT Technology Review, Church even intends to sign up as the first patient in a future human trial, provided the gene therapy tested by Rejuvenate Bio proves successful. The news outlet quotes him as saying that his goal is to “have the body and mind of a 22-year-old but the experience of a 130-year-old.”
As Harvard biologist David Sinclair points out, prolonging the human lifespan is “the biggest thing that is going to happen in the 21st century.”
“It’s going to make what Elon Musk is doing look fairly pedestrian,” said Sinclair, who works with the Church lab.
Rejuvenate’s next focus is to test its gene therapy on Cavalier King Charles spaniels and try to treat the genetic heart condition that plagues this adorable breed and kills nearly half of these dogs by the age of 10. As reported by MIT Technology Review, the company started reaching out to spaniel owners last year and sent out fliers advertising that gene mutations can make pets “healthier, happier, and younger.” The media outlet points out that the company did this without any evidence of the treatment’s success.
The Daily Dot raises some important questions about the ethical problems of using genetic treatments on dogs. For instance, tweaking an animal’s DNA could lead to unexpected complications and affect a dog’s health. Additionally, if dogs are genetically enhanced to live longer, this could end up crowding animal shelters and increasing the frequency of euthanasia.
Nonetheless, Rejuvenate Bio has already received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Special Operations Command for a research project titled “Enhanced Canine Performance, Protection, and Survivability.” The project is tasked with looking into genetic “enhancement” of military dogs.
At the same time, Harvard is trying to broaden the patent of its gene therapy for age-related diseases to include other domesticated animals, such as cows, pigs, horses, cats, dogs, rats, and goats.