If Dogs Live Longer With Anti-Aging Science, Humans Could, Too

As the tech industry has matured, people in Silicon Valley have become obsessed with developing ways to stop the human aging process. It started with really long bike rides and intermittent fasting, but some venture capitalists and startup employees have moved on to taking dozens of pills every morning, or injecting stem cells into their brain, or infusing their body with the blood of the young and virile.

This brand of life-extension experimentation remains fringe, probably because it’s weird and there’s not a ton of evidence any of it works. But Celine Halioua has a plan to take the field mainstream, and it involves dogs. Her startup, Cellular Longevity Inc., is developing treatments that extend the life span of dogs while also making them more active in their later years. Should such treatments work in canines, Halioua, 26, expects consumers and regulators will be more favorably disposed to similar techniques being used on humans.

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“Dogs are unquestionably considered the best model of human aging,” says Halioua, who studied neuroscience and then worked for a longevity-focused venture capital fund. “We have co-evolved with them, and they have a shared environment with us. They also develop age-related diseases over time. If we can do this for dogs, people will want it, too.” Her company, operating under the brand Loyal, has raised $11 million and plans to start trials in early 2022 on two compounds with potential anti-aging properties. Halioua declines to identify them.

The main barrier to developing anti-aging drugs and therapies for people is that we live too long. Drug companies are reluctant to invest in clinical trials that stretch over decades, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is more comfortable with medications that tackle a specific illness or symptom, rather than something as broad and abstract as aging. As a result, a number of promising anti-aging compounds have been largely untested on people in clinical settings.

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Halioua with her dog Wolfie.

Photographer: Carlos Chavarría for Bloomberg Businessweek

The notion of running these types of trials on dogs first is not entirely new. Over the past several years, about 30,000 dog owners have entered their pets into the Dog Aging Project, an academic research study backed by $25 million from the National Institutes of Health. The project examines how genetic and environmental factors affect dogs’ aging processes, and it’s also running a trial in which about 200 middle-aged dogs will receive the compound rapamycin, which is used by people to prevent organ transplant rejection and some types of cancer. “Rapamycin seems to delay or reverse aging in pretty much every tissue where it has been looked at,” says Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the University of Washington and the project’s co-director.

Despite its potential, rapamycin has developed a poor reputation among doctors. It causes a lot of side effects in organ transplant patients, who’ve suffered from maladies ranging from mouth sores to pseudodiabetic states.

Kaeberlein, who’s also an adviser to Cellular Longevity, says this result occurs because of the high doses organ transplant patients receive. He expects fewer issues with the low doses in the pills his team is sneaking into the peanut butter they feed the dogs. He’s used rapamycin himself to reduce inflammation and pain in his shoulder. “I’m a believer,” he says, though he stresses that his experience should not be taken as a recommendation for others to conduct similar experiments.

Canine studies involving caloric restriction have shown that a dog’s life span can increase by almost two years, while also delaying cancer, degenerative bone disease, and other conditions. The expectation scientists share is that a combination of therapies would show far more dramatic results. “We might be talking a 50% or 60% or 70% effect on life span,” Kaeberlein says, adding that it’s very difficult to predict without doing the trials.

relates to Silicon Valley Wants Dogs to Live Longer So Humans Can, Too

Deming (left) with Halioua and her dog Wolfie. 

Photographer: Carlos Chavarría for Bloomberg Businessweek

Academic researchers and private companies are designing trials to test compounds with potential anti-aging properties on dogs as a precursor to tests in humans.