A Week At The Most Secretive Conference On Aging
Important Disclaimer: the conference does not allow any photography of posters and talks. Hence, all photos in the article were taken during the extracurricular and team building activities.
One of the best ways for young scientists to get inspired and advance their scientific carriers is to interact with the faculty, research management of major funding bodies, editors of major journals, and industry leaders who may later serve as their mentors. Now that coronavirus lockdowns are winding down, hopes are up and people are beginning to ditch virtual meetings for in-person interactions; it has led to a surge in events and conferences around the globe. This has allowed the scientists to finally meet in-person to share ideas and have open discussions. Of course, some of the conferences like the largest aging research and drug discovery conference, the annual ARDD forum, was held in Europe (Copenhagen) in 2020 and 2021 and may be even larger in 2022, but in the US scientists in aging research were starving for high-quality in person meetings. Since our AI-discovered dual-purpose novel target implicated in aging and fibrosis entered Phase I human clinical trials, I started to get invited to many AI, chemistry, biology, and aging research meetings. But at most of these meetings if you present unpublished data, it will be rapidly photographed and disseminated in the industry. So when I was invited to the Gordon Research Conference by two celebrity chairs, Harvard/MGB professor Vadim Gladyshev, and the father of methylation aging clocks, UCLA professor and one of the top scientists at the newly-formed longevity startup, Altos Labs, Steve Horvath, I got very excited.
GRC is a platform where you can openly present unpublished research, get feedback and valuable advice, find collaborators, and be certain that no one will take pictures, or disclose confidential information. Also, the meeting was held in a super distant ski resort 1.5 hour drive from the nearest airport, and the academic and industry heavyweights could not leave that easily – if you commit, you commit. So without disclosing anything confidential, I will try to provide you with a glimpse into this amazing meeting designed to promote open interaction between the scientists presenting unpublished data, and culminate with a word-for-word copy of the interview with the chairs who did such a great job organizing the event.
The Gordon Research Conferences is a non-profit organization that hosts international scientific conferences and seminars to bring a global network of scientists together to discuss the latest pre-publication research in their field. The conference topics cover frontier research in areas like analytical chemistry, aging, artificial intelligence, astrophysics, bioengineering, and neuroscience, among many other areas of science. The conferences have been held since 1931, and have expanded to nearly 200 conferences per year. In 2022, GRC has planned over 395 events – a great way for like-minded people to gather, share ideas, and have a fun time. As part of its ‘no publication policy,’ each member of a GRC conference or seminar agrees that any information presented at an event is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented in a way that it is not for public use. This makes the GRC one of the most thought after conferences in the world and certainly one of the most strict when it comes to disclosing unpublished data externally. Since each conference is limited to 150-200 attendees; scientists must apply to the conference and be selected by the conference chair to attend the meeting. However, for those who are really interested in not missing out, the conference topics covered are regularly published in the journal Science.
One of the events hosted by the GRC this year was the conference called ‘Systemic Processes, Omics Approaches, and Biomarkers in Aging.” It was the inaugural Systems Aging Gordon Research Conference. Held in Newry, Maine, this event is not easy to get to. Many of the scientists on the East Coast of the US needed to spend half a day or more just to get there. There is a reason for this. Often, conferences that are organized in large metropolitan areas with easy access do not have the same level of “pressure cooking” and interactive networking just because many senior scientists tend to be distracted and often leave prematurely. But when they are put together in a remote location, it is not easy to leave and they have no choice but to interact with each other, share knowledge, and come up with new ideas and collaborations.
The level and impact of scientific conferences is often evaluated by the number and quality of the sponsors. And the GRC conference on Aging sported a number of high-profile sponsors including GRC itself, Carl Storm International Diversity Fellowship Program, National Institute on Aging, IOMICS Intelligent Analytics, Zymo Research, Kinexum, Insilico Medicine, Illumina, Aging journal, Impetus Grants, Infinita Life Science and VitaDAO.
With Vadim Gladyshev serving as chairman and Steve Horvath as vice-chairman, the conference set the stage for the field, paving the way for the development of interventions to delay and reverse aging. Vadim is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of Redox Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, while Steve is a professor of human genetics and biostatistics at the University of California – Los Angeles, and a senior scientist at Altos Labs. Both are world-renowned researchers, and spoke and led the discussions at the conference.
The conference was attended by a number of prominent researchers from renowned institutions; such as Cynthia Kenyon of Calico Labs, who discussed about interventions that slow aging, Morten Scheibye-Knudsen of the University of Copenhagen, who talked about modulating DNA repair for healthy aging, and Emma Teeling of the University College Dublin, who spoke about the genetic basis of exceptional longevity of bats. Of course, there were many other luminaries and industry leaders. I spoke on the applications of deep aging clocks in clinical practice and described how we used AI and aging clocks to identify a dual-purpose aging and disease protein target that is now in Phase I clinical trials.
The fifth-day event was divided by various discussion topics – so each day was highlighted by a new subject matter, sometimes two subject matters.
Day 1 Delaying Age
Day one was about “Delaying Age,” and was led by Steve Horvath as the discussion leader. On this day, Cynthia Kenyon, Richard Miller of the University of Michigan and Inigo Martincorena of the Sanger Institute presented. Richard and Inigo presented on drugs and mutations that slow aging in mice, and somatic mutations and clonal expansions in aging, respectively.
Day 2 Epigenetic Reprogramming and Rejuvenation
Day two was all about “Epigenetic Reprogramming and Rejuvenation.” It was led by Joe Betts-LaCroix of Retro Biosciences. Manuel Serrano of IRB Barcelona started the day with a talk on understanding and manipulating in vivo reprogramming and its effects on aging. He was followed by Vittorio Sebastiano of Stanford University, who spoke about transient reprogramming for multifaceted reversal of aging. Jacob Kimmel of NewLimit Research followed Vittorio with a talk on reprogramming strategies to restore youthful gene expression. Then came Morgan Levine of Yale University, who discussed DNA methylation landscapes in aging and reprogramming. She was followed by Yuancheng Lu of Whitehead Institute and Diljeet Gill of Altos Labs Cambridge Institute, who discussed reprogramming to recover youthful epigenetic information and restore vision, and multi-omics rejuvenation of human cells by maturation phase transient reprogramming, respectively. The second subject matter of the day was “Genomics of Aging” and was led by Emma Teeling as the discussion leader. Nicholas Schork of TGen discussed integrated approaches to characterizing the polygenic basis of longevity. Edward Boyden of MIT followed with a talk on technologies for mapping and controlling aging-related processes. Next came Martin Borch Jensen of Gordian Biotechnology with a talk on using pooled in vivo perturbation screens to understand how aging mechanisms manifest across tissues and cell types. He was followed by Joris Deelen of Max Planck, who discussed identification and functional characterization of genetic variants linked to human longevity.
Day 3 Epigenetic Biomarkers
The first discussion topic for the next day was “Epigenetic Biomarkers,” with Kristen Fortney of Bioage leading the discussions. First to the podium was Nick Schaum of Astera Institute, whose discussion topic was ‘rejuvenome: toward a functional and multiomics understanding of aging and rejuvenation.’ Samuel Beck of MDI came after Nick and shared his thoughts on misexpression of genes lacking CpG islands. He was followed by Riccardo Marioni of University of Edinburgh and Ake Lu of San Diego Institute of Science, who discussed about epigenetic clocks and universal DNA methylating age, respectively. The day continued with Sara Hagg of Karolinska Institutet and Patrick Griffin of Harvard Medical School – all speaking about aging research. The second subject of discussion of the day was “Clinical and Molecular Biomarkers,” and the discussions were led by Meng Wang of Baylor College. Cavin Ward-Caviness of the US EPA started the day with a discussion on air pollution and accelerated aging. He was followed by Morten, who was followed by Brian Kennedy of the NUS Singapore. The day ended with Paola Sebastiani of Tufts, who discussed molecular signatures of aging and extreme old age.
Day 4 Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
“Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning” was the first subject matter for the next day, which was moderated by Marc Kirschner of Harvard. Sergiy Libert of Calico started the day with a talk on construction and analysis of the physiology clock for human aging. I took to the podium next and discussed applications of deep aging clocks in clinical practice and drug discovery. I was followed by Kristen Fortney of Bioage and Albert-laszlo Barabasi of Northeastern University, who discussed data-informed drug discovery for aging and the dark matter of nutrition, respectively. Other speakers included Peter Kharchenko of Harvard Medical School, Ruogu Fang of University of Florida, and Nathan Price of Thorne Health Tech. Following a short break, the day continued with “Aging as a Systemic Process” led by Steve Cummings. Meng Wang of Baylor College, Danica Chen of University of California, Amandine Chaix of University of Utah, Gary Churchill of The Jackson Laboratory, Xin Jin of Scripps Research, and Subhash Kulkarni of Johns Hopkins presented their views on aging and longevity.
In my humble opinion, Kristen Fortney’s BioAge presentation and some of the posters were probably the most important reveals at the conference. She has a Phase II clinical readout coming up in the matter of weeks. If this readout is successful, it will help boost our industry.
Day 5 Comparative Genomics of Aging
The first agenda for the last day was “Comparative Genomics of Aging” led by Andrei Seluanov of University of Rochester. Speakers included Vera Gorbunova of University of Rochester, Emma Teeling, Joao Pedro de Magalhase of University of Birmingham, Elinor Karlsson of UMass Chan Medical School, Leon Peshkin of the Harvard Systems Biology Department , Mia Petljak of Broad Institute, Vyacheslav Labunskyy of Boston University School of Medicine, Steve Cummings of San Fransisco Coordinating Center and Alex Colville of Stanford. The second agenda of the day was “Fundamental Bases of Aging,” led by Cynthia Kenyon. Kenneth Raj of Altos Labs presented first, and was followed by Daniel Promislow of University of Washington, Sruthi Sivakumar of University of Pittsburgh, Oliver Hahn of Stanford, and Margaux Quiniou of Brain Research Institute. The last speaker of the entire event was Peter Douglas of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who d intracellular lipid surveillance in aging.
Over the course of the five-day event, presentations covered many topics, like delaying aging, aging clocks, longevity intervention, and so much more. Many organizations like MIT, Stanford and Yale were represented. It was truly a great opportunity to network with peers.
With this successful conference on aging, the GRC has now plans the second Systems Aging meeting in 2024.
Alex Zhavoronkov: The GRC conference brought together some of the most advanced groups from all over the world. I understand that most of the research presented is unpublished, but just talking about the general trends, can you describe a few truly “hot” areas that are likely to impact the field for the years to come?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev:
- Emergence of various types of rejuvenation: cell reprogramming, embryonic rejuvenation, heterochronic parabiosis, etc.
- Development and application of advanced biomarkers of aging, rejuvenation, lifespan and healthspan
- Application of systemic, multi-omics approaches to better understand aging and discover new ways to target it
Alex Zhavoronkov: If you were to highlight just five breakthrough talks, what would these be?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev: Talks from Ken Raj, Manuel Serrano, Ake Lu, Nathan Price, and Kristen Fortney particularly come to mind, but there were many other excellent talks too. There was also an outstanding set of posters, probably on average the strongest I have ever seen.
Alex Zhavoronkov: How close are we to seeing the first longevity therapeutics in humans and what needs to happen to get the pharma companies to invest heavily into this field?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev: We are probably 5-10 years away from it, as clinical trials are needed to unequivocally demonstrate the longevity effects of some interventions. For companies to heavily invest into the space, we need at least one intervention that significantly extends healthspan and lifespan without serious side effects.
Alex Zhavoronkov: I noticed that compared to several other GRCs I attended a few years back, there was surprisingly high number of industry speakers. Altos, Bioage, our company, VitaDAO, and several others (I will provide the list). Do you see that the industry started producing valuable scientific research output?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev: This is a characteristic feature of the field now. About a quarter of attendees at the Systems Aging GRC were from industry, and some of the best talks were delivered by scientists working at companies. In a way, some companies such as Altos, Calico, Bioage, Insilico Medicine, Retro, blur the distinction between academia and industry, as they support research that is published and presented at meetings. It may be a common goal or the nature of the field, but this is definitely an exciting time to be in this area.
Alex Zhavoronkov: Are there any groups and biotechnology companies that the pharmaceutical companies should evaluate closer for partnerships or learning the best practices?
If pharma is serious about expanding into this space, it should partner with the best academic science. This is the only way for major advances. Aging research appears simple to newcomers, and there is almost no barrier to join this field and begin contributing. However, aging is in fact incredibly complex. Moreover, there is currently no consensus on the most basic features of aging. So, it is easy to slip into doing research that is appealing, but which could lead to nowhere.
Alex Zhavoronkov: Aging clocks seem to be dominating the field right now. What are the most interesting findings in this field that you can highlight from the conference?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev: Aging clocks have started a revolution in the field. At the conference, we learned of various new types of clocks, both molecular and physiological, that could apply to cells, tissues, organisms and even species and that can be trained for various manifestations of aging.
Alex Zhavoronkov: I was very impressed by the social networking component of the conference. It is truly wonderful to see so many giants in the field in person. What was the most popular extracurricular activity that everyone enjoyed the most?
Professor Vadim Gladyshev: It seems that what attendees enjoyed most is the unmatched intellectual power of the group. I could see people discussing science well after midnight, every day. And they did it during various activities too: in the pool and sauna, while hiking and doing archery, at a bar and at a fire pit.
One of the highlights of GRC are the poster sessions. This is where the many young scientists can learn from the others, interact with veteran academics and industry leaders, and receive valuable feedback and collaboration proposals. Again, due to the nature of the conference, I will not talk about the unpublished data, and cover the posters, but one thing is clear – the field of aging research is rapidly advancing with the many new wonderful scientists joining the field, many new companies starting their journeys and many venture capitalists who are getting more and more sophisticated in this highly promising field.
In the case that you have made it this far, I would like to encourage you to learn more about this exciting field and register for the next GRC in 2024. In the meantime, there are many resources that can help people from other industries as well as physicians, computer scientists, and venture capitalists get into the field of aging research. One of the best ways to get into the field is to take free introductory courses and attend industry conferences. The next large interdisciplinary conference on aging research will transpire in Europe, and is organized by the University of Copenhagen.
See you at the 9th ARDD, August 29th – September 2nd
If you enjoyed reading about the GRC conference, which is very difficult to get in, please consider attending the 9th Aging Research and Drug Discovery conference in Copenhagen, running from 29th of August to 2nd of September either virtually or in-person. Both GRC chairs will be presenting and many of the scientists who presented at the GRC will be at the ARDD. The ARDD will also bring together many venture capitalists, pharmaceutical companies, and startups in longevity biotechnology.