A new startup backed by a 24-year-old is trying to replicate animal hibernation to help humans recover from serious injuries like heart attacks and strokes
Fauna Bio, a new biopharmaceutical startup backed by venture capitalist Laura Deming, is researching hibernating animals to unveil clues about how the human body can protect itself in emergency medical conditions like trauma, heart attack, and stroke.
Hibernating animals have the ability to manipulate their metabolic rates, control blood flow levels, protect tissues against damage, and put on and lose a large amount of weight safely.
The company is working to re-create a hibernation-like state in patients by using a combination of repurposed drugs that are used now for other indications, and natural compounds like melatonin.
Hibernation allows bears to sleep through entire winters — now a new startup wants to replicate this state in humans to help protect the body against severe injuries.
Ashley Zehnder, Katie Grebek, and Linda Goodman started Fauna Bio in June after they met studying different, but very complementary projects at a post-doctoral lab in Stanford.
Their company is backed by 24-year-old venture capitalist Laura Deming, who runs The Longevity Fund, which principally invests in aging-related research and discoveries.
Hibernating animals are excellent at healing themselves after suffering the equivalent of a heart attack or a stroke. The reason is because these animals are adept at manipulating their metabolism.
Hibernation as a trait can be a spectrum. True hibernators, like bears, drop their body temperature by 2-6°C for 6-9 months.
Smaller animals, like pet hamsters, go into something called torpor, which is a light form of hibernation that can occur daily. Their small size forces them to lower their body temperature more drastically in order to achieve the same metabolic processes. By proxy, they have to re-warm their bodies more periodically.
This dynamic physiology allows them to control blood flow to their heart, function in low oxygen settings (hypoxia), and protect tissues against damage and deterioration.
The Fauna team is mapping and analyzing hibernators' RNA and DNA, and linking important genes into a network that can be activated pharmacologically. These genes span across networks in charge of energy metabolism, circadian rhythm, and insulin management.
These also overlap with the mTOR, one of the pivotal pathways implicated in aging, and AMP Kinase, a cellular metabolic pathway that's activated by diabetes drug Metformin.
How hibernation can improve medical outcomes in emergency rooms
Emergency rooms use therapeutic hypothermia to lower patient metabolic rates and improve their survival rates in cases of traumatic brain injury, strokes, and heart attacks. This cools the body artificially from outside inwards.
"We're forcing the body to cool when it doesn't really want to, and that causes problems. It causes deficiencies in immune function so people get really bad pneumonia, they have issues with blood clotting," Zehnder told Business Insider. "Part of what we're doing is trying to figure out what are the exact initiating factors to be able to allow you to lower metabolic rate, without having to be cooled from the outside. That's something a lot of the model hibernators do."
Mimicking short term hibernation or creating a synthetic torpor – accounting for caveats like maintaining immune function, preventing blood clots, and stopping muscle deterioration – can help patients safely cool, heal, and re-warm. Heart attack patients can recover without suffering heart damage, and stroke therapy can be enhanced.
It can also be given long-term to patients with diabetes or silent ischemic heart attacks to resist damage from severe cardiac or metabolic events.
Further research can aid obese patients in losing weight safely, since hibernators have mastered the craft.
"We have a couple of avenues for advancing the work that we're doing for human trials," Zehnder said. "Each of those have different development paths and different levels of capital efficiency." These include repurposing drugs that are already on the market, using natural compounds, and inventing new drugs.
In a recent experiment, combining the natural products beta-hydroxybutyrate and melatonin improved survival in animals suffering from a 60% blood loss. This combination will enter human trials sometime this year as a form of trauma therapy.
Currently, the company's 12-18 month timeline involves a mix of experiments that they're kicking off in the following weeks. One or two of the products will advance to pre-approval stages by late 2019.
"It's a great time to be doing this type of work," Zehnder said. "We're really sitting on the precipice of being able to take advantage of new genetic drug discovery tools."
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