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Buck Spinout Delos Pharma to Take on Diseases of Aging

By Anette Breindl
Science Editor

The New York Times profiled the Greek island Ikaria recently as "the island where people forget to die" for its large population (relatively speaking) of healthy individuals who are older than 80.

Delos Pharmaceuticals Inc. is named after another Greek Island, and for another reason. But the company, which is a joint project of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and British firm Biotica Technology Ltd., also hopes that its future customers will, if perhaps not forget to die altogether, then at least avoid falling into a drawn-out decline beforehand.

Delos, CEO Stelios Tzannis explained, is named after the island that gave the ancient Greek Delian League its name. As Greek cities banded together for protection against common enemies in the fifth century BC, so Delos plans to focus on common pathways that are affected in aging and the diseases of aging.

That focus on common pathways, Tzannis told BioWorld Today, is "a very novel way" of approaching disease. The typical approach is quite narrow, finding a target for a given disease and developing compounds that affect that target, but "ignoring the processes that go on around the disease." In contrast, "We are not only not ignoring [those processes]; we are putting them at the center of our efforts."

On Ikaria, key factors in longevity appear to include napping and gossiping with neighbors. Delos is, of course, taking a pharmaceutical approach to the diseases of aging, with the goal of improving healthspan.

One of Delos' targets is mTOR, which is among the signaling molecules that appear to play a role in multiple diseases of aging. mTOR is named for the first drug to affect it – its name is short for "mammalian target of rapamycin."

There have been and still are a plethora of clinical trials testing rapamycin's effects in multiple indications, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. But the drug has many side effects, which is partly due to the fact that its target mTOR is part of two complexes, mTORC1 and mTORC2.

Delos has licensed rapamycin analogues from Biotica. Chemically, rapamycin is a polyketide. That class of compounds includes blockbusters such as the statins, as well as approved drugs in many other indications. But polyketides have been difficult to optimize.

Biotica, though, specializes in polyketide drugs, and Delos plans to focus on that chemical class as well. The compounds Delos has licensed and is now working on, Tzannis said, are "highly specific for the pathways that we believe are responsible for disease progression," leading "certainly to better safety" and likely to better efficacy as well.

Although aging is the single biggest risk factor for a number of diseases, it is not itself a disease, at least not as far as the FDA is concerned. And so, like other companies that are focused on diseases of aging, Delos is tackling aging one indication at a time.

Among the diseases the Delos has in its crosshairs is lupus, which, like many autoimmune diseases, can affect the young as well as the old. Tzannis said lupus illustrates that "there is a distinction between diseases of old age and diseases of aging."

And Delos co-founder and Buck Institute CEO Brian Kennedy told BioWorld Today that lupus can strike the young, but the autoinflammatory processes underlying the disease are "impacted" with old age – "think of rheumatoid arthritis," he said.

Without discussing specifics, Kennedy said that Delos will not be the last start-up to come out of the Buck Institute. "Whenever it makes sense for us to move to the private sector to accelerate progress towards our goal," he said, "we will do it."

He added that "it's an exciting time for the Institute," whose mission is to increase the healthy years of life. The Buck Institute is the first research institute to focus on the interface between aging and chronic disease. The institute officially opened its doors in 1999. Kennedy said that the spinout of Delos is the result of the feeling that "we have done enough research to take the next step."

So far, Delos has no funding. The company is headquartered at the Buck Institute and supported by ongoing research in several institute labs. But Tzannis said the company is planning to raise a Series A and will "hit the road very shortly" for that purpose.