Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

July 20, 2016

Curing Disease: More Insight Instead of Mere Effort

 

Curing disease correlates with insight, not blind effort.

There is an eternal trade-off between insight and effort. If we think carefully, understand the problem, and plan, then effort is minimized. If (as too often happens) we think carelessly, misunderstand the problem, and rely on hope instead of planning, then effort is not only maximized, but is usually a complete waste. Lacking insight, we foolishly flush both money and effort down the drain. In the case of clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease – and in fact, all age-related diseases – this is precisely the case.

The major problem is a naïve complaisance that we already understand aging pathology.

If there was a single concept that is key to all of aging, it is the notion that everything in our organs, in our tissues, and in our cells is dynamically and actively in flux, rather than being a set of organs, tissues, cells, and molecules that statically and passively deteriorate. Aging isn’t just entropy; aging is entropy with insufficient biological response. Senescent cells no longer keep up with entropy, while young cells manage entropy quite handily. At the tissue level, the best example might be bone. We don’t form just bone and then leave it to the mercy of entropy, rather we continually recycle bony tissue throughout our lives – although more-and-more slowly as our osteocytes lose telomere length. This is equally true at the molecular level, for example the collagen and elastin molecules in our skin. We don’t finish forming collagen and elastin in our youth and then leave it to the vagaries of entropy, rather we continually recycle collagen and elastin molecules throughout our lives, although more-and-more slowly as our skin cells lose telomere length. Aging is not a process in which a fixed amount of bone, collagen, or elastin gradually erodes, denatures, or becomes damaged. Rather, aging is a process in which the rate of recycling of bone, collagen, or elastin gradually slows down as our shortening telomeres alter gene expression, slowing the rate of molecular turnover, and allowing damage to get ahead of the game. We don’t age because we are damaged, we age because cells with shortening telomeres no longer keep up with the damage.

The same is true not only of biological aging as a general process, but equally true of every age-related disease specifically. Vascular disease is not a disease in which our arteries are a static tissue that gradually gives way to an erosive entropy, but an active and dynamic set of cells that gradually slow their turnover of critical cellular components, culminating in the failure of endothelial cell function, the increasing pathology of the subendothelial layer, and the clinical outcomes of myocardial infarction, stroke, and a dozen other medical problems. Merely treating cholesterol, blood pressure, and hundreds of other specific pathological findings does nothing to reset the epigenetic changes that lie upstream and that cause those myriad changes. Small wonder that we fail to change the course of arterial disease if our only interventions are merely “stents and statins”.

Nor is Alzheimer’s a disease in which beta amyloid and tau proteins passively accumulate over time as they become denatured, resulting in neuronal death and cognitive failure. Alzheimer’s is a disease in which the turnover – the binding, the uptake, the degradation, and the replacement – of key molecules gradually slows down with telomere shortening, culminating in the failure of both glial cell and neuron function, the accumulation of plaques and tangles, and ending finally in a profound human tragedy. The cause is the change in gene expression, not the more obvious plaques and tangles.

Our lack of insight, even when we exert Herculean efforts – enormous clinical trials, immense amounts of funding, and years of work – is striking for a complete failure of every clinical trial aimed at Alzheimer’s disease. Naively, we target beta amyloid, tau proteins, phosphodiesterase, immune responses, and growth factors, without ever understanding the subtle upstream causes of these obvious downstream effects. Aging, aging diseases, and especially Alzheimer’s disease are not amenable to mere well-intended efforts. Without insight, our funding, our time, and our exertions are useless. Worse yet, that same funding time, and exertion could be used quite effectively, if used intelligently. If our target is to cure the diseases of aging, then we don’t need more effort, but more thought. However well intentioned, however much investment, however many grants, and however many clinical trials, all will be wasted unless we understand the aging process. Aging is not a passive accumulation of damage, but an active process in which damage accumulates because cells change their patterns of gene expression, patterns which can be reset.

Curing Alzheimer’s requires insight and intelligence, not naive hope and wasted effort.

 

 

May 12, 2016

Telomeres: Are They Worth Measuring?

It’s funny how often we make assumptions that are not only wrong, but that we are completely unaware of making. Having spent more than twenty years dealing with the clinical implications of cell aging, telomeres come to mind as an immediate example of this mistake.

Hardly a week goes by without another claim that some particular intervention alters telomere lengths in human patients. Without exception, they are measuring telomeres in peripheral white blood cells. It’s easy to get blood samples and measure telomeres in circulating white cells. Unfortunately, not only are these telomeres the ones that matter least, but (if you’re trying to prove the value of your intervention) they’re almost worthless.

Measuring telomeres in your blood to see how old you are is a bit like looking at your hat size to figure out how tall you are. Whether it’s your peripheral blood telomeres or your hat size, it’s still the wrong measurement for the job.

There are two problems with measuring telomeres in blood cells (even totally ignoring arguments about technical methods, unreliable laboratories, and the mean length versus the shortest lengths of those telomeres).

The first problem is that the blood cells aren’t the key cells when it comes to aging and age-related diseases. If you really want to know where you stand clinically, you should be measuring the telomeres in the endothelial cells lining your coronary arteries, the glial cells in your brain, the chondrocytes in your joints, or several other places more closely related to the most common (and fatal) aging diseases. Few of us are willing to have biopsies taken from our coronary arteries, our brain, or our joints, but just because we are a lot more relaxed about giving a blood sample doesn’t mean that the blood sample is worth getting. It barely reflects what’s going on in your white cells, let alone what is going to end up causing disease and death.

The second problem is a more subtle, but more important. It boils down to this: most of your white cells aren’t circulating in your blood and the ones that do circulate are changing and dividing all the time, making them a poor reflection of what’s happening to the stem cells in your marrow. I wrote an academic review article about this in 2012 and discussed it in The Telomerase Revolution, but let’s look at it here. Imagine you can instantly and accurately measure every telomere in the body, including those in the bone marrow and peripheral venous circulation. Oddly enough, you’d discover that the blood tests aren’t reliable indicators of what’s happening in the marrow.

Let’s say that you measure all of the telomeres at time A and again at time B. In between A and B, you use an intervention such as gene therapy, TA65, mediation, dietary change, or whatever you think might be effective. At time A, you find that the telomeres in the hematopoietic cells of the marrow are 12 kbp long. At the same time (due to stress, infection, poor diet, inflammation, and generally poor health habits) there is rapid peripheral turnover, cell division, and telomere loss in the peripheral blood. As a result, the mean telomere length in the blood sample is only 8 kbp.

We then intervene.

At time B, you find that the telomeres in the hematopoietic stem cells in the marrow are now only 11 kbp long (showing that the patient has gotten older). Also at time B, since we might now have lowered stress, removed infections, decreased inflammation, and generally made the patient “healthier” with whatever intervention we may have chosen, their peripheral cells are now turning over more slowly, dividing less frequently, and losing less telomere lengths once they leave the marrow and enter peripheral circulation, so that the mean telomere length in the peripheral blood sample is now 9 kbp.

We could claim (as many articles do) that our clinical intervention “lengthened the peripheral telomeres!” The truth is that our intervention didn’t lengthen anything and we’re deluding ourselves (and whoever believes our claims). The peripheral telomeres that we sample at time B might be longer than the ones we sampled at time A, but the telomeres of the cells back in the marrow now have shorter telomeres. Our intervention may well have made the patient healthier and we might actually have slowed down the rate of telomere loss, but we definitely didn’t lengthen any telomeres, no matter how proudly we pat ourselves on the back.

Peripheral leukocytes are routinely used to assess telomere lengths (which is fine as far as it goes) and then used to assess clinical interventions, which is overreaching. If we do serial measures of peripheral telomeres every few months for a few years, then the validity will increase somewhat, but peripheral telomere measurements (no matter how often you measure them) are intrinsically an unreliable and invalid biomarker for what we really want to assess, which is “whole body telomere changes” or at least “marrow telomere changes” (in the case of blood cells).

Most of the available literature which suggests that we can slow or reverse telomere losses is – if it’s based on peripheral blood samples – misleading at best and unethical at worst.

February 16, 2016

Unexamined Assumptions

The problem with curing Alzheimer’s is, as with so much of our understanding of aging and age-related diseases, that we make unexamined assumptions. Let me admit that many of our unexamined assumptions are either useful or reasonable. I assume that the sun will come up again tomorrow morning and that’s a useful and reasonable assumption. Useful, in that it allows me to plan my future, reasonable in that the sun has been coming up every morning for quite a while and is therefore likely to do so tomorrow as well. Certain unexamined assumptions are equally justifiable in dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. In the strictly poetic sense, Alzheimer’s certainly is the disease that “steals our souls”, yet no physician or researcher would actually make the assumption that the mind is some vague ethereal quantity that can be stolen by demons, let alone go on to promulgate a theory of Alzheimer’s pathology based on this assumption.

Yet we make exactly that same error, using an unexamined assumption, when we blithely assume that aging is simply the accumulation of damage and, pari passu, that Alzheimer’s disease is simply the accumulation of damaged molecules, be they amyloid, tau tangles, or altered mitochondrial enzymes. This unexamined assumption lies behind almost innumerable multi-million dollar FDA trials, academic papers, and clinical interventions. We assume, without even realizing we have made the assumption, that Alzheimer’s is merely the accumulation of damaged molecules.

We make the same unexamined assumption in looking at other age-related diseases and in the broader field of aging itself. We delve into the details of advanced glycation end-products (AGE), lipofuscin, cross-linking, and other molecular pools showing “accumulative damage”, all the time never realizing that we are making the same fallacy. We are working with completely unexamined (and erroneous) assumptions about how aging works. We naively assume that aging occurs – and age-related diseases follow – merely because things “rust” over time. We age because “molecules fall apart.”

 

Yet the data and logic both say differently. Let me give you a useful analogy: the cell phone. Consider a large pool (several thousand) of people who own cell phones. We know that if we examine any SINGLE cell phone, the best predictor of failure is how long it has been since production. If, however, we want to predict the percentage of failures in any large pool of owners, the best predictor is not time-since-production, but length-of-contract, that is, how often does it get turned over and replaced? Imagine two large pools of cell phone owners. In group A, the cell phones are replaced annually, with a failure rate (at equilibrium) of approximately 1%. In group B, the cell phones are replaced every ten years, with a failure rate (at equilibrium) of approximately 80%. In both groups, the rate of failure of any individual phone is the same. Furthermore, the rate of failure is only marginally related to the “genes”, i.e., whether the phone is an Apple iPhone, an Android, or some other type (a different “allele”). As the turnover rate (contract length to replacement) lengthens, the percent of failed cell phones climbs dramatically, regardless of the failure rate of any individual cell phone. In a pool of cell phones, “aging” is not a matter of passively accumulated damage, but of how actively we replace them.

The same is occurring in molecular pools in biological systems. The key predictor of “denatured” or dysfunctional molecules (e.g., AGE, beta amyloid microaggregates, cross-linking, elastin failure, collagen stiffening, etc) is not the rate of damage but the rate of turnover. In the case of cell aging, when we reset gene expression (reset telomere length) we reset the turnover rates (anabolism and catabolism rates) of all molecular pools to those typical of “young” cells. The outcome is that molecule pool turnover is more than sufficient to deal with typical rates of damage.

Without realizing it, most of us make the mistake of thinking of molecular pools as static and damage as purely accumulative. The reality is that such pools are dynamic and the key dependent variable (as with cell phones) is not the passive rate of damage, but the active rate of turnover.

Unless we understand – and examine – our assumptions, we can never expect to cure age-related diseases. Once we start down the wrong path, all the logic and data in the world can’t make up for the fact that we are looking in the wrong place. It’s time we stopped blaming “demons” and starting thinking carefully.

December 7, 2015

21st Century Science: Isn’t It About Time?

The other day I was asked about the role of denaturation of a particular protein in aging. It was a typical question that pretty much sums up the problem we have had in understanding (and doing anything about) aging during the past century. The problem is the question hides a flawed premise. It presupposes that molecules simply sit around and accrue damage. Put another way, the problem is that we look at molecules as part of as static pool rather than looking at the dynamic turnover that is the hallmark of metabolism.

Imagine a 1930 Duesenberg that has been lovingly cared for and is in pristine condition, even though it rolled off the assembly line 85 years ago. Compare this to my two-year-old car that already has a few rust spots. Was the Duesenberg better made than my car, that is, did it come with “better genes”? Was the Duesenberg exposed to less damage than my car, that is, did it have “fewer free radicals, less denaturing of its proteins, or a smaller rate of cross-linking”? No. The difference between that “ageless” Duesenberg and my own “aging” car is not the quality of the production line nor the exposure to sun, snow, salt, and dirt. The difference lies exclusively in the dynamics of its care. That Duesenberg was polished, aligned, oiled, repainted, repaired, and “recycled” on a regular basis. My own car is “aging faster” because I don’t care for it as frequently or as carefully as did the owners of that Duesenberg, and therein lies the entire difference between young organisms and old ones.

In aging organisms, it’s neither the genes nor the damage, but the slowing rate of recycling and repair that results in old cells, old tissues, old organisms, and age-related diseases.

Bizarrely and ironically, most people still look at biological systems and ignore the fact that they are alive, that they are dynamic, that they are constantly in flux. We look at a particular molecule – whether beta amyloid, collagen, GDF-11, or a thousand others – and we ignore the fact that these molecules are constantly being created, broken down, and replaced, but instead, we blindly focus on the damage itself. It’s true that as an organism ages any given pool of molecules shows an increase in damage – such as the aggregates of beta amyloid in early plaque formation – but the key is not the damage, the key is the slowing of the metabolic turnover. An accumulation of damage is not static and passively accumulative; it occurs because the rate of turnover falls as a result of changes in the pattern of gene expression. Whether we look at tau proteins, elastin, or any other molecular pool you want to look at, the key to the problem lies not in any particular gene nor in any particular source of damage. The key lies in the rate at which both anabolism and catabolism are replacing those molecules.

We don’t age because we accumulate damage, we accumulate damage because aging permits damage to accumulate.

A doctrinaire attention to “aging genes” and a catalog of one’s favorite sources of molecular damage will never result in cures to age-related disease. The key to intervention lies in the rate of molecular turnover, which responds to changing patterns of gene expression. Those who focus on genes and damage, to the exclusion of molecular turnover and gene expression, are perhaps some of our most highly-educated and intelligent minds of the 20th century…

…but it’s now the 21st century.

It’s time we caught up.

November 10, 2015

Singularity: Why We Age

I hope that all of you will take a look at the free chapter of my new book, The Telomerase Revolution, that has just been posted on Singularity: https://www.singularityweblog.com/why-we-age/#comments. If you find the chapter provocative, please buy the book and read it carefully.

The question of “Why we age” (the title of the chapter excerpted here) is not only a good question, but probably all-but-impossible to answer with any certainty. For one thing, it’s notoriously difficult to do really good, meaningful experiments in answering evolutionary questions. We are stuck using either descriptive cases or experimental models that have short lifespans and arguable relevance to the questions we are asking. Moreover, part of the problem in understanding why we age is that — until recently — we really had no idea what we meant by “age”. There has long been an (often unstated and unexamined) assumption that organisms simply age because of entropy and that specific genes (as opposed to patterns of gene expression) determined aging. Not knowing how aging actually happened naturally led to faulty conclusions about why it happened.

Is my suggestion about “why we age” the correct one? I doubt it, but I suspect that my answer is likely to provide a slightly more realistic start on a reasonable answer because it begins with a more accurate understanding of what we mean by “age”.  If we want to explain why infectious diseases evolve over time, then it helps if we know about bacteria, viruses, chlamydial organisms, fungi, and prions. Once we understand what causes infectious disease, we can talk about the evolution of microbial organisms; once we understand what causes aging, we can talk about the evolution of aging.

 

July 20, 2015

Why Solanezumab Disappoints

Insanity is doing the same thing over and

over again and expecting different results.

                                    – Variously Attributed

 

[This blog was written and published on Monday July 20th, two days prior to the announcement of the results of Eli Lilly’s clinical trials of solanezumab for Alzheimer’s.]

 

Until now, there have been only two globally-approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease (Aricept and Namenda), and neither of these have been shown to slow, let alone stop or reverse Alzheimer’s. Most current clinical hopes have been pinned to various attempts to use monoclonal antibodies to attack beta amyloid in the brain, and none of these have been shown to slow, let alone stop or reverse Alzheimer’s disease either.

At the current meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association (July 18-23, Washington, DC) there has been growing interest in the latest clinical trial of this disappointing approach, as Eli Lily announces (on Wednesday July 22nd) the latest results of using solanezumab (also called “Soli”), a drug which was a disappointment in its initial clinical trials. Nevertheless, and to the surprise of many, the FDA gave Eli Lilly permission to continue their phase 3 trials and expectations increased the price of the Eli Lilly stock as the upcoming announcement of the results approaches. Unfortunately (not only for the company, but for all of us), the results will be equivocal at best and certainly won’t show that we can slow, stop, or reverse Alzheimer’s.

Why not?

Why don’t any of the drugs that target beta amyloid have any effect on the underlying disease process? Why have all of the monoclonal antibody drugs — with Soli just the latest heartbreaking therapeutic (or non-therapeutic) disappointment — failed to stop the disease?

The unspoken assumption has been that beta amyloid “causes” Alzheimer’s.

Oddly enough, the assumption is false: beta amyloid doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s disease. Small wonder then when our attempts intervene in the wrong target fail every time. Mind you, beta amyloid is clearly implicated in the pathology and it clearly plays an important role, but to say that is “causes” Alzheimer’s is to confuse cause and effect. If we have a patient with an infection, a high fever, and an elevated white blood cell count, we wouldn’t blame the fever or the white cells for the infection. Likewise, it would be silly (and dangerous) to “treat” the infection by simply removing the patient’s white cells. Yet this is the same sort of logical error we routinely make with Alzheimer’s disease. We know that almost all cases of Alzheimer’s disease show amyloid deposits at autopsy (or now, using other tests, even in living patients with Alzheimer’s), and we know that amyloid deposits can damage neurons, but to automatically conclude that that’s the entire ball game is to go well beyond reality and enter the realms of wishful thinking (or insanity, if we were to believe the quote given above).

None of the clinical trials aimed at removing beta amyloid have ever shown efficacy.

The problem is that amyloid is the wrong target and monoclonal antibodies against amyloid are the wrong intervention. The current failure of solanezumab is simply one more in the list of such failures. If trying the same failed approach over-and-over is insanity, then sanity would be to try a new intervention, an intervention based on a sophisticated appreciation of the actual clinical pathology. In my new book The Telomerase Revolution, I not only discuss that more sophisticated view of the pathology, but how we plan to intervene in a more rational and effective fashion.

July 15, 2015

How Does Alzheimer’s Work?

 

Alzheimer’s disease steals our souls.

We lose our humanity when it destroys the neurons that make up a critical part of our brains, but why those neurons die has always remained a mystery since “senility” was first noted, thousands of years ago. Even in the past century, since it was first described clinically by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in a 1907 medical article, we not only haven’t cured the disease, we haven’t even understood it. In this blog, we will come to understand exactly how it works — and what can be done to cure it.

Part of the reason we are slow to understand diseases (and many other things, for that matter) is the tendency to engage in magical thinking. We identify an association, mistake it for a causation, and then we are mystified when our naïve interventions fail. This error may seem obvious, but we make this same mistake repeatedly in medicine and in other aspects of daily life. In the case of Alzheimer’s diseases, we repeatedly identify a protein, a gene, or another product, and we naively try to intervene, then are left clueless and shocked when our best efforts fail utterly. The classic case has been that of beta amyloid plaques, common in most cases of Alzheimer’s disease, when we try to remove or prevent their formation and then cannot understand why all of our interventions fail so spectacularly. There have been hundreds of human trials aimed at beta amyloid, for example, yet none of them have proven effective. Why not?

Alzheimers disease cascade

The reason lies in magical thinking: knowing that some diseases (such as Sickle Cell) are clearly a genetic disease, and knowing that there are genetic correlations with Alzheimer’s disease, we conclude that Alzheimer’s is also a “genetic disease” and that if we could only find just the right gene, we would know how to cure the disease. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s isn’t a genetic disease. Despite all of the candidate proteins, genes, and gene locations we are still investigating, these are correlations, not the cause of the pathology. Whether we look at beta amyloid (and its precursor protein in several variant forms), presenilin, APOE4, R4YH, UNC5C, SORL1, CLU, CR1, PICALM, TREM2, A2M, GST01 & 02, BAB2, CALHM1, TOMM40, CD33, ADAM10, PLD3, or any of the dozens of other candidates (the list grows longer by the day), none of these “cause” Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is not a genetic disease, Alzheimer’s is an epigenetic disease. All of those genes (I just saw another one published this morning) contribute to the risk, yet none of them — not a single one of the identified genes — causes Alzheimer’s. To quote a previous blog, each of them is a tree, but Alzheimer’s is a forest. When we focus on trees, we forget the broader pathology of the forest.

To use another common analogy, each of the genes identified with Alzheimer’s is like a submerged rock. As we age, the problem is not the hidden genetic rocks — such as APOE4 — but the fact that the water level is gradually falling, until the hidden rocks become exposed and cause a medical shipwreck. Treating APO-E4 will not resolve the problem. Alzheimer’s is not caused by the amyloid protein itself, which is necessary to neuronal function when present in appropriate amounts, but to the failure of amyloid clearance by aging microglia. The aging microglia becomes less and less capable of recycling and maintaining appropriate levels of not only beta amyloid, but a number of other things a well. This becomes apparent earlier in those with an APOE4 gene, but the problem is ubiquitous and not restricted to a single gene product. APOE4 wouldn’t be a problem is the microglial function was up to snuff, as it is in young adults. As the microglia age, as the water level falls, we expose the hidden rocks — the barely sufficient turnover of amyloid proteins in the case of those with two APOE4 alleles. To extend the water analogy, consider the two most well-known of those hidden rocks: APO-E4 and APO-E2. The first (the more dangerous allele) is a rock that lies just a few feet under the water, while the second (the safer allele) is a rock that lies a bit deeper down in the water. Neither of these hidden rocks are a problem when the lake water level is high (i.e., when we are young and our microglial clearance of amyloid is high). However, as the water level falls (i.e., as we age and microglial clearance begins to fall due to epigenetic shifts induced by telomere shortening), we expose first the APO-E4 rock (particularly in those with two copies of the APOE4 gene) and then, much later in life, the APO-E2 rock (in those who are lucky enough to have two copies of the APOE2 gene). Nor are these the only hidden genetic rocks. The rocks include not only the long list of “Alzheimer’s genes” given above, but literally hundreds of other risk factors, factors that become increasingly exposed as our microglia age and fail to protect us. As we age, as the water level falls, we expose risk-after-risk, rock-after-rock, gene-after-gene until we run aground and our minds go down for good.

The solution is not to find each and every genetic rock and hope to prevent disaster by filing down the rocks one-by-one, but to simply raise the water level again. Once we reset gene expression — not only theoretically, but based on animal trials — the pathology resolves. When we go after the key causal element in the pathology, when we reset gene expression in the microglial cells, the neurons are no longer at risk. If we want to cure Alzheimer’s, we need to aim at the cause of the disease, not at the genes, not at the proteins, not at the tangles, not at the microaggregates, and not at the plaques. To date, not one of these approaches has been effective.

Alzheimer’s doesn’t begin in the neurons; Alzheimer’s begins in the microglia. The key to curing Alzheimer’s is not to identify genes, but to reset gene expression and the key to resetting gene expression is to use telomerase therapy.

May 27, 2015

Four Ways to Lengthen Telomeres

Many of you have asked about Helen Blau’s work at Stanford, using telomerase mRNA [FASEB Journal]. Helen sent me a copy of her article when it came out and I’m a serious fan of her work. As some of you know from my upcoming book, The Telomerase Revolution, there are four approaches to resetting telomeres: 1) put in a new telomerase gene, 2) activate the telomerase gene that is already in cells, 3) put in the mRNA (as Helen’s group did) for telomerase, or 4) put in the telomerase protein itself.

 

The first problem with mRNA is that the molecule is incredibly fragile and has a short half-life at body temperature, making it hard to work with in the lab (in vitro) and even harder to work with in patients (in vivo). The second problem (with both mRNA and protein) is that you only get one copy of the final telomerase enzyme, whereas if you put in the gene or activate the gene, you get multiple copies of the enzyme and a lot more “bang for your buck”. In short, mRNA is great, but has a low ROI, clinically speaking. The third problem, a recurrent one in this field, is that if you read either Helen’s paper or the slew of media articles and interviews since publication, the emphasis is always on treating “genetic disease” (such as one of the muscular dystrophies) rather than “aging disease” (such as Alzheimer’s). There is an unspoken and almost universal assumption that genetic diseases like the various muscular dystrophies are “real”, but aging diseases like Alzheimer’s aren’t true “diseases” at all, but they “just happen because things wear out”. This common assumption leads most researchers to focus on inherited genetic conditions exclusively and completely ignore normal aging processes and their associated clinical pathology – such as Alzheimer’s. Even when researchers DO focus on Alzheimer’s they operate on the assumption that it must involve a “bad gene” (such as APOE4).

 

Both assumptions are false, but are shared by most of the academic and medical research community, even if neither assumption is ever clearly stated or acknowledged. Since researchers “know” that aging is not a classic genetic disease, they are equally complacent in thinking that aging diseases cannot be treated by a genetic approach. The result is that almost no one approaches aging diseases in a practical way, using fundamental interventions such as telomerase mRNA, telomerase activation, telomerase protein, or – as in our case at Telocyte – telomerase gene therapy.

May 12, 2015

The Telomerase Revolution

My new book, The Telomerase Revolution, is now finished and is being copy edited by the publisher. Oddly enough, it’s already selling well in preorders. Amazon.com says that it is now the “#1 release in medical research”, which is a delightful surprise, since it won’t actually be published and available to the public until October. For those of you who would like to order a copy, here is the link to Amazon.com:

  • http://www.amazon.com/Telomerase-Revolution-Enzyme-Aging%C2%85-Healthier/dp/194163169X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1426777801&sr=8-1&keywords=telomerase+revolution

The book is a careful and clear discussion of how aging works in cells, how it causes the clinical diseases of aging, and what we can do to cure age-related disease. There is a good clear chapter on vascular aging and neurodegenerative disease — especially Alzheimer’s disease — that a lot of reviewers find especially intriguing. Len Hayflick, the researcher who first described cell aging more than fifty years ago, calls the chapter “superb”. Matt Ridley, author of several best sellers including The Rational Optimist, Genome, and The Red Queen, says that he read the chapter with “real fascination” and tells me “I badly want to read more of the book”.

If anyone would like to do a book review, please contact me, and I will arrange to send you a review copy.

May 6, 2015

Lymphocyte telomeres are not a good disease marker

A friend pointed out that a recent Danish study suggested that short telomere lengths in circulating peripheral lymphocytes account for about a quarter of the variance in mortality. Does this mean that lymphocyte telomere lengths (LTL’s) are really only a minor factor in age-related disease and mortality? Probably, but it’s not the important question. A better question is whether or not telomere shortening accounts for age-related disease and mortality, which it does.

In regard to the Danish study, I would expect that result. People seldom die directly as a result of immune senescence and to the extent that they DO die of immune senescence, the figure of 25% of the variance strikes me as about right. Most people die of vascular aging and there is no a priori reason) to believe (nor data to suggest) that the telomere lengths of the vascular endothelium have any direct relationship to the telomere lengths of circulating lymphocytes. People may have short endothelial telomeres in their coronary arteries and advanced vascular aging, without necessarily having short lymphocyte telomeres that show up when we look at the circulating blood cells. Endothelial cells (which cause vascular aging) are not the same as lymphocytes (which are involved in immune aging). Within any one patient, we would expect some correlation between the rate of telomere loss in one type of cell (endothelial cells) and the rate of telomere loss in a different type of cell (lymphocytes), but the correlation will not be high and will certainly not be causal. It’s disappointing to see large (and expensive) clinical studies that try to chase down lymphocyte telomere lengths and expect them to predict overall disease. Lymphocyte telomere lengths will be related to some diseases (cancer comes to mind, and the data supports this relationship) but not to other diseases. For those of you who would like to know more, read my biomarker paper for a partial discussion of this illogical thinking (Fossel, 2012). Whatever were they thinking (or NOT thinking)?

If we want to accurate predict (I’d rather cure) the risk of age-related diseases and death, we would need to acquire reliable measures of changing telomere lengths in, for example, the vascular endothelium and microglial    cells, as well as other cells and tissues. I’m sure that the circulating lymphocytes account for some of the variance in mortality, but not only can’t we restrict ourselves to lymphocytes, but there remain the (totally ignored) issue of circulating vs other, non-circulating lymphocyte reserves. Even if we can prove that lymphocyte telomere lengths (LTL’s) rise with a prolonged intervention (for example, using dietary change, telomerase activators, exercise, or other potential interventions), a peripheral increase in telomere lengths may still mask a decline in actual decline in overall telomere lengths as newer lymphocytes enter the circulation from the marrow and other repositories. The cells haven’t “become younger”, rather we are merely sampling a different set of cells.

My usual analogy applies here. If I were to sample the ages of the residents living in a single city block and find that over a twenty year period the mean age of the residents goes from 70 to 30 years old, that does NOT mean that we have made those residents any younger, only that the older residents have moved (or died) and that a totally different population of younger residents has replaced them. In fact the overall population of the city (or the country) may have undergone an increase in mean age, even if the particular city block that I measure shows a decrease in the mean age of its residents.

In a parallel fashion, when we measure circulating LTL’s, we are only measuring a single sample of circulating lymphocytes, not an entire population of the body’s lymphocytes. So even if I could prove a clinical intervention appeared to result in all of the circulating LTL’s getting longer, that doesn’t prove anything about the mean telomere lengths in the body as a whole. We certainly can’t claim that we have improved the immune function or “reversed aging” in lymphocytes. Such conclusions are not only invalid, they are naïve to the point of embarrassment.

If we really want to show that telomerase therapy can lower mortality or cure age-related disease, then we need to look at mortality and disease, not lymphocytes.

 

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