Longevity industry “taking shape”

ARDD 2021 kicks off: sessions to cover longevity topics from AI and senolytics to mitochondria and stem cell rejuvenation.

Following yesterday’s workshops, ARDD 2021 really gets going today, with the first of four days’ worth of fascinating sessions from academic and industry leaders on the future of aging and longevity research. Speakers from David Sinclair and Joan Mannick to Vera Gorbunova and James Kirkland will bring participants up to date on the latest progress on the molecular, cellular and organismal basis of aging and the ongoing quest to discover and develop interventions.

Longevity.Technology: The line-up at this year’s conference is a veritable who’s who of longevity, and includes many of the top researchers and innovators in the aging field. So what makes ARDD such a draw, and who are the organisers most excited about? We spoke with Insilico Medicine’s Alex Zhavoronkov and University of Copenhagen professor Morten Scheibye-Knudsen to find out.

“ARDD is an ultra elite conference for connecting startups, pharma companies, academia and governments,” says Zhavoronkov. “We’re now by far the largest aging-related conference in in the world for the pharmaceutical industry.”

Credibility is key

With the goal of building better connections between pharma companies and the longevity field, ARDD’s organisers are conscious of the importance of showcasing the most credible research and development in aging.

Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO and co-founder of Insilico Medicine.

“We aim to ensure that we have the highest level of academic and clinical credibility,” says Zhavoronkov. “Every speaker is very well curated, and published in top peer-reviewed journals – there is no snake oil or unproven technology here.”

That credibility factor is further driven home by the participation of key academic journals including Aging, eLife, Frontiers in Aging, Nature Aging, and The Lancet.

“People want to believe in longevity, but it’s important to maintain a stringent a scientific focus as possible,” adds Scheibye-Knudsen. “We haven’t shown a single molecule working in humans and, while we’ve been able to slow aging down in mammals, we have never been able to stop it. But I’m very enthusiastic and positive about some of these challenges that we’re facing.”

University of Copenhagen associate professor Morten Scheibye-Knudsen.

Zhavoronkov agrees that there is plenty to be positive about.
“Years ago, the aging field was many disconnected fields,” he says. “But the industry and the science has started taking shape, and the conference has evolved through the integration of multiple fields with key hallmarks of aging.”

Sessions to watch out for

Unlike other conferences, ARDD doesn’t really have keynote sessions. Scheibye-Knudsen says this is because they want to avoid differentiating between people who are all doing very important work in very important areas. But he kindly picks out a few sessions of interest.

“What’s exciting and emerging now, based largely on unpublished work, is the idea of doing in vivo rejuvenation, activating stem cells, using Yamanaka factors,” he says. “It’s about reversing aging by activating latent stem cells, reprogramming normal cells to become stem cells again, and thereby making people younger. Manuel Serrano, one of the leading figures in the senescence field, will talk about it, and David Sinclair will probably also talk about some of the rejuvenation work that they’ve been doing over there.

“James Kirkland is also someone that we’ve been wanting to get involved for a while, and he is going to present on senolytics, and I’m sure we’ll hear about some of the clinical work going on in his lab.”

Historically, the conference has also been closely focused on developments in artificial intelligence and computational approaches to aging, research and drug discovery. This year is no exception and the conference welcomes Kai-Fu Lee, Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures as a speaker.

“Kai-Fu Lee is probably the most famous person in artificial intelligence, I think he has 75 million followers on social media – the largest following of any AI scientists,” says Zhavoronkov. “He is opening the conference, and will talk about AI for healthcare, but also focusing on AI for longevity.”

“There are also several talks on using AI and Big Data for drug discovery,” adds Scheibye-Knudsen. “Or for phenotyping, which Adam Freund from Calico is giving a short talk about – what he’s doing sounds really interesting.”

A return to in-person events

Hosted as a combined physical/virtual event at the University of Copenhagen, the not-for-profit ARDD conference is organised by a team of volunteers, including Zhavoronkov and Scheibye-Knudsen. While last year’s event was mostly delivered online due to COVID-19, around 200 in-person attendees are expected to grace the University’s impressive ceremonial hall, where the sessions are delivered.
ARDD map
“There is a big onsite programme, which is much more interactive this year,” says Zhavoronkov. “Even for online participants, the on-site programme is going to enrich their experience because there’s going to be additional interactions with speakers – they are going to bring the laptop to the bar – it should be a lot of fun.”

The organisers expect more pharma and startup participants this year, although the overall balance will likely remain about the same as last year. Diversity is important, and Zhavoronkov is keen to point out that last year’s conference was close to achieving a 50/50 mix of male and female delegates.
ARDD delegates
Zhavoronkov also feels that the sector is becoming more attractive to people seeking a new career development option.

“This conference is great for people who are currently shaping their career, and reshaping their career to switch for example, from bioinformatics into longevity AI research,” he says. “But it is also for people who are interested in exploring and shaping their careers into this field from every perspective.”

Images courtesy of Christoffer Regild / www.regild.dk, University of Copenhagen and ARDD