Moving into aging research – in dogs!

P – H – Done

As I finish up my PhD at Stanford and consider my next career moves, I’m positive I want to work at a small and rapidly growing biotech startup. After many interviews and some serious introspection, I settled on working at Loyal, a biotech company dedicated to extending the lifespan of dogs by developing therapeutics. It seems like a crazy idea at first, but the core thesis of doing aging research in companion canines makes a lot of sense.

I believe the aging field is at an inflection point – it’s where the microbiome research was 10 years ago. Back then, 16S rRNA sequencing was the state of the art, and the only question researchers were commonly asking of microbial communities was “who’s there.” We’ve since come to appreciate the ecological complexity of the microbiome, developed new genomic ways to study the identities and function of it’s members, and engineered microbiome therapeutics that are starting to show signs of efficacy.

At the core of the aging thesis is the idea that aging is a disease. After all, age is the largest risk factor for death, cancer, dementia, etc. Re-framing aging as a disease allows for completely new investigations, but will not be easy from a regulatory perspective.

Lifespan vs healthspan

“Why would you want to extend the number of years someone is sick at the end of their life?”

This question is frequently asked by those unfamiliar with aging research. However, I don’t believe many in the field have a desire to prolong an unhealthy end of life. Extension of lifespan is not valuable if the extra years are not lived well. Many researchers are interested in healthspan, the number of years lived in a good state of health. One way to picture this is to imagine a “rectangularization” of the survival curve. A drug that prolongs the number of years lived in good health would be very valuable, even if it had no impact on life expectancy.

Rectangularization of the survival curve – The lines should both be the same height to start, but you get the idea.

What about the ethical implications?

News about advancements in aging research are often accompanied by fear: “won’t this just make rich people live longer?” After all, immortality has been a quest for millennia. I don’t buy into many of these criticisms, for a few reasons. First, lifespan is already very stratified by income, and the wealthiest individuals already have access to advanced therapies and care that others lack. Second, advances in lifespan and healthspan are likely to be slow. No immortality drug will be developed overnight. Third, many researchers are working to develop drugs for aging that are cheap and commoditized. The CEO of Loyal, Celine Halioua, has written about this at length.

I’m not new to the aging field!

Back in my undergrad research at Brown, I worked in Nicola Neretti’s lab, which was focused on the genetic and epigenetic pathways of aging. The main paper I contributed to in undergrad studied the chromatin organization of cells as they progressed into senescence – a cellular version of aging slowdown. It’s great to be back!

What’s going on at Loyal?

I’ll be working on everything related to genomics and bioinformatics related to dogs. This means sequencing blood and saliva samples from our laboratory and companion animals, quantifying aging at the genetic and epigenetic level, building better epigenetic clocks, and researching the breed-specific epigenetic changes that accompany aging in certain dogs. It’s exciting and fast paced. And we’re hiring more! Whether your background is in aging science, vet med, computer science, or business operations, we need talented people. Drop me a line if you want to talk more.

Academia or Industry?

That question seems to be on the mind of a lot of the people around me lately. Junior year of my undergrad studies at Brown is almost over, and my classmates and I are starting to think of what our lives will be like after next May. For people interested in the sciences, especially biology and biotech related fields. there are two main options everyone considers: should I get a job right our of undergrad, with only a bachelor’s degree? Or, should I stay in school for another 5+ years for a Ph.D?  There are obvious benefits and costs to each (which I’ll cover in a later post), and everyone wants to know exactly what choice will be best for them.

Up until recently, I have wanted to go to graduate school the fall after finishing at Brown. I feel like I’m ready for what the process entails, thanks in part to the books I’ve been reading by recent (either delighted or regretful) Ph.D recipients. But now, I’m not so sure. The Brown Club of Boston Biotech Conference was a big factor in this – listing to people in industry talk about the opportunities for bachelor’s degree holders was eye opening. The starting salaries they mentioned were impressive (and not much less than what you’d get as a Ph.D). The projects looked interesting.  And most importantly, the jobs are there.

I’m considering taking a year or two to work in industry before committing to grad school. After all, whats a year delay when you’re going to be in school for another 5-7 ?

Brown Club of Boston Biotech Conference

I just returned from an excellent conference sponsored by the Brown Club of Boston. The conference was designed to facilitate networking between Brown alumni, current students and leaders in all aspects of the biotechnology field. There was a panel of three interesting speakers, each of whom talked about their unique experience in the biotech industry.

  •  Angus McQuilken, VP of Communications and Marketing at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

Angus spoke about the biotech boom that’s been happening in Massachusetts recently. A major reason for this is support from the state government – the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center was tasked with giving out $1 billion in funding to companies and individuals over a ten year period. Some of that money goes toward funding the internship challenge, a program that subsidizes internships for Mass residents and students working at biotech companies.

  • Mitch Sanders, Ph.D, founder and CEO of ECI Biotech

Mitch talked about his experience in biotech after his postdoc at MIT. His company is developing sensors that change color in the presence of certain bacteria and viruses – the tech is being applied to band-aids, prosthetics and food and will hopfully be on the market within the next couple of years. He also spoke about the ups and downs his company had been through in the past years and the importance of being able to adapt in the industry.

  • Elaine Crowley, founder and president of the Crowley Group.

The Crowley Group is a consulting firm that provides “insightful executive coaching” to companies and individuals. Although not limited to biotech, Eliane had some good lessons for the audience of students: finding employment that matches your culture is just as (if not more) important than the pay, prestige or benefits.

There was a Q&A session after the panelists spoke. I asked the three of them about the pros and cons of getting a Ph.D before working in the biotech industry, and the answers I recieved surprised me. More on that in a later post!

Many thanks to the members of the Brown Club of Boston who organized this event, especially Paula Freeman. who blogs about etiquette and lessons young people should learn over at jobetiquettebypaula.wordpress.com.