A San Diego start-up company, Jouvence Pharmaceuticals Inc., hasestablished as its goal what some may consider the Holy Grail ofmedicine _ a drug to keep old age at bay.

The company, founded by Yves Theriault, took its name from theFrench version of the legend of the fontaine de jouvence toemphasize its search for genes linked to the aging process.Jouvence's letterhead even has a woman interrupting the hands of aclock.

"We target intrinsic aging," said Theriault, who is president and CEOof privately held Jouvence. "We are doing what no one else hasdone."

Many biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms are seeking thegenetic causes of specific age-related disorders, such as Alzheimer'sdisease. Jouvence, however, is studying the underlying molecularmechanisms that put people at the mercy of time.

Slowing down the process of getting old, observed Theriault, is amore comprehensive approach for treating diseases associated withaging.

As part of its genetic research, Jouvence has acquired an exclusivelicense to an anti-aging gene, called longevity-assurance gene(LAG1), and its protein. LAG1 was first discovered and sequenced inbaker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), but homologues, or similargenes, have been identified in humans. The genes are expressed ineight human tissue types, including those in the brain, kidney andheart. The most abundant expression has been found in skeletalmuscle.

Theriault said Jouvence's research still is early stage. The biologicalfunction of the LAG1 gene is not yet understood, but studies showedit plays a role in extending the life span of yeast cells. The gene wasdiscovered by Michal Jazwinski, professor of biochemistry andmolecular biology at the Louisiana State University Medical Centerin New Orleans. Jazwinski also is co-director of the LSU Center onAging.

"There will be other genes involved," Theriault said. LAG1 and itsprotein, he noted, may help elucidate the genetic pathway involved inaging, leading to molecules downstream that might be better drugtargets to prevent tissue degeneration. On the other hand, LAG1 andthe LAG1 protein themselves may form the basis of an anti-agingdrug.

Theriault, who founded Jouvence in March 1995, said a marketableproduct could take 10 to 12 years to develop.

Bennett Cohen, of Research Corporation Technologies, in Tucson,Ariz., said the LAG1 gene is considered important because it isexpressed in numerous organisms and a range of human tissues.Research Corporation Technologies, a technology managementcompany, received rights to the gene and protein from LSU andlicensed the genetic material to Jouvence.

Cohen said numerous pharmaceutical companies were interested inthe gene, but Jouvence won out in the negotiations. Neither Cohennor Theriault would disclose the price paid for the license.

In March 1995, Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif., paid $20million to Rockefeller University in New York for exclusive rights toan obesity gene and its protein, leptin. The company this year beganclinical trials with leptin as an anti-obesity treatment.

Cohen said Amgen altered the landscape for licensing geneticdiscoveries. The company's announced deal with Rockefeller, hesuggested, "skewed the perception of the value of genes."

As for Jouvence, its business strategy involves using its collection oflongevity-related genes to forge alliances with larger companies todevelop anti-aging therapies. In addition to acquiring rights to genes,the company has its own gene discovery technology.

With most pharmaceutical firms planning ahead as far as 25 years forthe baby-boom generation's inexorable march toward age-relateddiseases, Jouvence may have a chance to change some landscape ofits own.

"If we can slow down the process of aging," Theriault said, "thatbaby boom market for drugs will be delayed." n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.