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This UTSW Graduate Wants to Lengthen Your Lifespan One Disease at a Time

Cambrian Bio is developing treatments that may give us more healthy years.
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Imagine taking a pill that makes your body go into a high-energy burning metabolic state, turning on the same pathways that cardiovascular exercise does. A daily pill to give patients the benefit of moderate exercise regularly would be a transformational moment in medicine. UT Southwestern graduate James Peyer’s company, Cambrian Bio, is making that happen.

Peyer came to Texas to continue to work with Dr. Sean Morrison, who was recruited from Michigan with a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas grant to continue his research at UTSW. Peyer finished his Ph.D. here in Dallas before focusing on fighting aging and lengthening healthy years, an interest he had held since high school.

Cambrian Bio Founder, CEO, and Chairman James Peyer Courtesy: Cambrian Bio

Although the default for someone with his background was to stay in academia, Peyer wanted to ask a question that had been nagging at him. Why had so many incredible discoveries in the science of aging been unable to make it to market? There were dozens of ways to extend the life of mice, but few had made it to human trials. Biologically, a mouse is closer to a human than a worm, so why hadn’t these discoveries made the next step?

Peyer set up meetings with pharmaceutical investors and asked them why treatments for extending lifespan had yet to gain any traction. What he found out would guide the rest of his career.

“When these scientists that made these fundamental discoveries would go to an investor or a pharma company and say, ‘Hey, we figured out how to slow down aging in a mouse. Can we test the human?’ That pharma or VC firm would say, ‘Oh, we can’t run a clinical trial on this. It’s going to be too hard. Just go back to the lab and keep doing basic research.”

Proving that treatment extends healthy years takes decades of research and funding. In an industry that is already high risk and high reward with years of lead time before going to market, funders weren’t too excited about extending the timeline for a profit. But the moment lit a fire under Peyer. He had to find another angle to make it happen.

After a stint at McKinsey and starting a venture firm to help professors turn their discoveries into biotech companies, he took the helm as CEO of a few early-stage companies and moved to Germany for several years to continue that work.

When he returned to New York, he founded Cambrian Bio to realize his long-term goal. Cambrian would be the first pharmaceutical company to develop drugs that extend healthy lifespan. His angle? He would do so through preventative medicine addressing the causes of death: cancer, cardiovascular health, Alzheimer’s, and the weakening of the immune system.

Addressing society’s most significant and long-standing health issues seems like a tall order, but the company is gaining traction. Cambrian Bio has raised around $160 million since its founding in 2019 to develop multiple assets that increase longevity.

Peyer helped make the connection between funders and scientists, who had been talking past each other regarding addressing lifespan. When a researcher makes a vital discovery to prevent cancer, they often work to develop the cancer treatment. Peyer’s strategy was to see cancer prevention treatment in the context of extending lifespan and building a company full of research to address individual causes of death like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Venture firms are more likely to fund research addressing diseases in the current ecosystem, like cancer or diabetes, rather than treatments that take on the intractable issue of aging and longevity. Peyer calls it a stepping stone indication, where the company steps from a single disease to take on aging.

So how does that work? One example is Cambrian’s pipeline company which was introduced earlier this year. The company is called Amplifier Therapeutics and is developing a drug called ATX-304 that activates sensors in the body that pull sugar from the blood into the cells and mobilize fat to produce energy, which happens when we exercise or fast. Our body’s ability to activate that sensor decreases as we age, so taking a pill replicating exercise allows us to fight metabolic conditions like cardiovascular diseases, kidney diseases, and cancer later in life, increasing one’s healthy years.

This treatment could be a game changer and healthy life-extender for those with metabolic conditions or who cannot exercise. One of the best things we can do to extend our life is exercise, but this drug will allow those unable to do so to get some benefits. The drug is currently in Phase IB of human trials.

Peyer sees potential for the drug to treat obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. “You can take this pill and get the benefits of cardiovascular exercise,” Peyer says. “It’s like going for a run and putting your body in that metabolic state on a regular basis. You’re getting moderate exercise all the time.”

Cambrian’s goal is to help individuals have longer, healthier lives, but there is also a macro application. When the social security system was first built, people didn’t live as long as they do now. In 1934, there were 45 contributing workers to every beneficiary, but with fewer children and longer lives, that number is now three workers for every beneficiary. In 2021, it began to pay out more than it brought in, and unless there are changes in its funding mechanisms, it will be unable to meet 100 percent of benefits by 2034.

Peyer sees extending healthy years, or “healthspan,” as a way to increase the number of contributing workers who can contribute to society and social security longer than they would have otherwise. “Our economic future depends on taking people over 65 or 70, keeping them healthy and active, and empowering those who want to continue contributing.”

The idea of living forever is a philosophical dilemma and scary thought for many, but the general public is much more responsive to a question about preventing Alzheimer’s than one about extending lifespan. Peyer says it has been about making the story more mundane and using these individual disease treatments to build an arsenal against aging.

“This makes societies stronger. It makes my life better by having my parents less likely to get sick and die of horrible diseases,” Peyer says. “That personal plus societal benefit is the one-two punch that makes this field so exciting right now.”


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior editor for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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