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How is AI driving cancer treatment and the longevity theme?

One in two people are expected to develop cancer in their lifetime, while one in every 10 elderly Americans has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Discovering new drugs and developing innovative technologies to improve diagnosis and treatment could be key to people living longer and healthier lives.

  • Eli Lilly recently demonstrated that one of its drugs could slow cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.
  • Innovative technologies and AI are set to improve cancer detection and diagnosis, with more patients able to survive and live longer.
  • How to invest in longevity: the Global X Ageing Population ETF is up 0.7% in the past six months.

The prospect of living more than 100 years may be daunting, but new research suggests it could be a tantalising possibility in the future.

One study by researchers at Columbia University has found that taurine — a nutrient found in many foods and energy drinks — slowed down the ageing process for mice, worms and monkeys by up to 12%.

“For the last 25 years, scientists have been trying to find factors that not only let us live longer, but also increase healthspan, the time we remain healthy in our old age,” said the study’s leader Vijay Yadav, assistant professor of genetics and development at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a press release. “Taurine could be an elixir of life,” he added.

Other studies have concluded that metformin, which is one of the most prescribed drugs globally for patients with type 2 diabetes, could play a role in slowing the ageing process.

While such research is promising, it’s not conclusive. Many of those who aspire to live longer lives are taking matters into their own hands. These so-called ‘biohackers’ monitor their bodies around the clock, collate data and use it to determine what supplements and foods are best to prolong their life expectancy. Some are even taking Rapamycin, a drug used clinically to reduce rejection of kidney transplants and to treat some cancer patients, despite there being no concrete proof that it can slow ageing.

Biohacking’s potential merits notwithstanding, the trend doesn’t eliminate the likelihood of cancer or the onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Treatments that mitigate these conditions and improve the prognosis for patients are more likely to promote longevity.

Treatment updates

Last month, Eli Lilly [LLY] presented late-stage clinical trial results at a conference that showed its drug, donanemab, can slow cognitive decline in patients who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although there are possible serious side effects — including brain swelling and bleeding — scientific experts like Howard Fillit, chief scientist at the US-based Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, have hailed promising trial results as a “watershed moment”, according to the Financial Times.

The Eli Lilly news came just a few weeks after Biogen [BIIB] and Japanese drugmaker Eisai [4523.T] gained the nod of approval from the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for its Alzheimer’s treatment, Leqembi. Back in June, the FDA granted Amgen’s [AMGN] blood cancer treatment blinatumomab, sold under the name Blincyto, full approval.

As ever with pharmaceuticals, sentiment can often turn on a dime. Shares in AstraZeneca [AZN.L] tumbled in early July after the company released initial results from its phase trial 3 for datopotamab deruxtecan. While it found the treatment for advanced small-cell lung cancer could halt the progression of the cancer, it was inconclusive whether patients would live longer due to the treatment.

Oncology pipelines drive sales

Despite the temporary setback for AstraZeneca, CEO Pascal Soriot said on the second-quarter 2023 earnings call that the company is “encouraged” by the data even if the results are not “clinically meaningful”.

Cancer treatments are a strength of the Anglo-Swiss drugmaker. While total revenue for the three months to the end of June was up 4% year-over-year to $22.3bn, oncology enjoyed the highest growth rate of all the segments, jumping 22% to $4.6bn. Sales of another lung cancer drug, Imfinzi, were up 57% in the quarter to $1.1bn, while revenue from its breast cancer durg, Enhertu, was up 33% to $67m. The growth in oncology treatments helped to offset a $2.2bn decline in Covid-19 vaccine sales.

Pfizer [PFE] is looking beyond vaccines with the $43bn acquisition of Seagen [SGEN], which will see the pharmaceutical giant double its oncology portfolio. The deal is expected to close later this year.

As populations age and people continue to live longer on average than the generations before them, cancer cases are expected to rise, despite the progress being made on a cure for the disease. This means oncology could continue to be a bright spot for drugmakers.

Innovation will lead to early detection

As medicine advances and public health infrastructure improves further, research into developing innovative cancer treatments could accelerate.

Early detection is key and diagnostics could be improved through liquid biopsy technologies, while artificial intelligence (AI) could also be used to catch tumours that doctors might miss when relying on traditional scans. The market for AI in cancer diagnostics was worth $137.8m last year and is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 26.3% between 2023 and 2030, according to Grand View Research.

“New treatments may be shifting the paradigm toward a tumour-agnostic future where a cancer’s genetic and molecular features take precedence over where a tumour is located, accelerating the rate at which patients could receive life-saving treatments,” wrote Arelis Agosto, research analyst at Global X, in June.

AI could improve patient outcomes

Early detection and diagnosis of cancer cases could improve outcomes and increase the survival rate of those who receive the diagnosis. While this is of course good news for patients, it also represents a “compelling investment opportunity”, argued Agosto.

“In our view, minimally invasive and accurate early-detection tools, broader access to innovative treatments and harnessing the power of AI to improve patient outcomes all have the potential to fuel growth at both legacy healthcare companies and promising upstarts,” she concluded.

How to invest in longevity

ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, offer an economical and diversified way to invest in a variety of stocks within a particular theme.

Funds in focus: the Global X Ageing Population ETF

The Global X Ageing Population ETF [AGNG] is the clearest play on the theme, as it offers exposure to all the companies mentioned, apart from Eisai and Pfizer. As of 31 July, the portfolio is focused almost exclusively on healthcare (93.6%), while real estate — including Welltower [WELL], which provides the healthcare sector with real estate capital — has been allocated the rest.

The fund is up 0.7% in the past six months.

The iShares Ageing Population UCITS ETF [AGED.L] is a broader play on the theme of longevity. As of 1 August, healthcare accounts for just 49.71% of the portfolio, followed by financials, which has an allocation of 39.05%. Consumer discretionary and consumer staples have weightings of 8.48% and 1.94% respectively, while communications and real estate have been allocated less than a percentage point each.

The fund is down 2.7% in the past six months.

Another option is the VanEck Bionic Engineering UCITS ETF [CYBO.L], which offers exposure to companies using bioprinting, implants and prostheses to improve the quality of life for the ageing population.

The fund, a pure play on the healthcare sector, is down 2.8% in the past six months.

Disclaimer Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

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