An Interview with Alex Zhavoronkov of Insilico Medicine

Posted on: December 10, 2020

An Interview with Alex Zhavoronkov of Insilico Medicine

Alex Zhavoronkov founded Insilico Medicine, an early company in the young longevity industry, and the first of many to focus on machine learning as a way to improve research infrastructure in drug discovery. Here he offers a selection of opinions on the longevity industry, the approaches he thinks are most interesting. It is worth bearing in mind that his bias is very much towards the use of machine learning and small molecule therapeutics, which is far from a full list of everything that is taking place.

Can you give our listeners a quick overview of the longevity and aging field.

It will be difficult to make a short intro into the longevity industry because it is broad and encompasses many fields that also relate to general biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and healthcare. I would define longevity medicine as a field of AI powered preventative medicine focused on biomarkers of aging. Recently, the longevity industry has advanced quite dramatically. Just in the last ten years, we have seen convergences that integrate soft sciences like information technology with biotechnology. This union resulted in the discovery and rapid adoption of a technology called aging clocks or biomarkers of aging.

Aging clocks were originally developed on methylation data, so epigenetic data by Steve Horvath and the Hannum group from 2011-2013. Our group picked up the trend and converged it with artificial intelligence and developed a range of deep biomarkers of aging or deep aging clocks. We have a variety of aging clocks built on blood tests, transcriptomic data, proteomic data, methylation data and aging data. Pretty much any data that changes in time. This allows us to tangibly measure aging. I believe that this introduction will be the next-generation of the longevity industry.

How about the therapeutic side? What are some drug candidates targeting aging?

I like to break therapeutics down into 5 areas. 1) Rapalogs, derivatives or analogues of rapamycin. 2) Senolytics, drugs that target senescent cells and allow for cells to be replenished, to be recycled. 3) NAD boosters. Multiple groups worldwide discovered that elevating the level of NAD+ molecule at the cellular level results in increases in health and lifespan in model organisms. 4) Metformin, an old diabetic and pre-diabetic drug and now people of all ages are also taking it for longevity. There is a clinical trial on the way called TAME that targets aging. 5) Alpha-ketogluterate (or AKG). AKG is off patent and thus difficult to get intellectual property protection, but it looks like it holds a lot of promise in aging and age-related diseases as well.

What are your expectations for the aging field in the next decade?

We are starting to see companies and even clinical centres combining diagnostics and therapeutics. Unfortunately, we do not see this industry being perceived as credible by the insurance industry and by large pharmaceutic industries, yet at least. We're getting there but we still have a long way to go. I think that in general, the longevity industry is pretty early in its development, so we don't see the hype in longevity yet. We do see the venture capital industry getting into the field. They are funding all kinds of projects, credible and uncredible, and it is great. This investment reminds me of the social networking era, or the era of computing where people were betting on all kinds of projects during the dotcom boom. I think that we are going to see a major boom in aging within the next decade or two. So, if you are a young pharmaceutical executive or if you are a medical student, I would take this industry as a priority for career development.


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