A company called Rejuvenate Bio is working on gene therapy for dogs to make them live longer with an eye to doing the same for human beings.
Co-founded by George Church of Harvard Medical School, the prominent synthetic biologist, the company is already carrying out preliminary tests on beagles by adding new DNA instructions to their bodies.
“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 said.
But the company is not looking for publicity just yet, with details on the trials sketchy.
Using a patent application by Harvard, interviews with investors and dog breeders, and public comments made by the founders, MIT Technology Review put together a portrait of the efforts to discover the fountain of youth through better synthetic genes by pursuing funding for the project the $72-billion-a-year U.S. pet industry.
“Dogs are a market in and of themselves,” Church said. “It’s not just a big organism close to humans. It’s something people will pay for, and the FDA process is much faster. We’ll do dog trials, and that’ll be a product, and that’ll pay for scaling up in human trials.”
Another Harvard biologist, David Sinclair who collaborates with Church said the prolongation of 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.”
Already Rejuvenate Bio has met with investors and won a grant from the U.S. Special Operations Command to look into “enhancement” of military dogs, according to MIT Technology Review. Harvard, meanwhile, is seeking a broad patent on genetic means of aging control in species including the “cow, pig, horse, cat, dog, rat, etc.”
Proving the increase in longevity of humans simply takes too long.
“You don’t want to go to the FDA and say we extend life by 20 years,” explained Church. “They’d say, ‘Great, come back in 20 years with the data.’”
Rejuvenate will first try to stop fatal heart ailments common in spaniels and Doberman pinschers, amassing evidence that the concepts can work in humans too.
Church says the ultimate objective is to “have the body and mind of a 22-year-old but the experience of a 130-year-old.”
The efforts are reportedly getting the attention of Silicon Valley billionaires like PayPal creator Peter Thiel. The boasts have included lines like this: One day we’ll be able to control the biological clock and keep you whatever age you want.
The new company has been contacting dog breeders, ethicists, and veterinarians with its ideas for restoring youth and extending “maximal life span,” according to its documents. The strategy is to gain a foothold in the pet market – where Americans already lavish $20 billion a year on vet bills – “before moving on to humans.”
Not everyone is so gung-ho.
Life-extension treatments based on genetic modification could also bring unexpected side effects, according to Matt Kaeberlein, a University of Washington researcher involved in a study called the Dog Aging Project, who has been testing whether a drug called rapamycin causes dogs to live longer.
“The idea that we can genetically engineer lab animals to have longer life span has been validated. But there are concerns about bringing it out of the lab,” Kaeberlein says. “There are trade-offs.” Changing a gene that damages the heart could have other effects on dogs, perhaps making them less healthy in other ways. “And when you do these genetic modifications, there are many cases where it doesn’t work as you intend,” he adds. “What do you do with the dogs in which the treatment fails?”