Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

April 5, 2018

Aging and Disease: 2.2 – Cell Senescence, Telomeres

Everyone seems to “know” that telomeres have something to do with aging. The internet even has pop-up ads about foods that lengthen your telomeres, with the unstated assumption that will make your younger, or at least healthier. Inquiry shows, however, that not only do most people have no understanding of the role of telomeres in aging, but neither do most researchers, academics, or clinicians. The result is that many have an unfounded faith in telomeres, while others scoff at the idea that they have any value whatsoever. In fact, both groups are naïve, albeit for different reasons.

The contrarian in me is tempted to assert that “telomeres have nothing to do with aging”, just because people expect me to say that telomeres cause aging, which they don’t. Telomeres play an important role. To say that telomeres have nothing to do with aging is inaccurate, but it’s just as inaccurate to say that telomeres cause aging. To give an analogy, we might say that your entire life is determined by your genes, which is inaccurate, or that genes play no role in your life, which isn’t true either. As with most things, the truth is complicated. Were we to be accurate we might say that telomeres play an important role in the incredibly complex cascade of pathology that we see as aging, indeed a critical and irreplaceable role, but telomeres do not cause aging any more than does any other facet in that intricate web of pathology. Aging is not simply telomeres.

Telomeres have a lot to do with how aging works, but telomeres don’t cause aging.

Causation is a slippery concept, despite the assumption that it’s concrete and well-defined. Causation might apply to billiard balls and the laws of motion, but causation becomes misleading when we apply it to multifactorial events, let alone to complex webs of biological mechanisms. This definitional fuzziness is blithely ignored by both those who ask about causation and those who provide an answer.

To move the discussion to history, for a moment, if I asked for the cause of the American Revolution, there might be a thousand answers that were relevant and appropriate (and not necessarily overlapping). We might focus on taxation, representation, the cultural and geographical distance, any number of specific “flash points”, any of several dozen key players on either side of the Atlantic, etc. Pretending there is “a” cause of the American Revolution presupposes that we already share not only a common framework for the discussion, but common assumptions about what constitutes a cause, and (probably) a great many unexamined prejudices as well. In short, most discussions about causation start with the assumptions that already presuppose a narrow answer. Not a good point to begin understanding.

This is equally true of biological causation. For example, what causes cancer? Is it your genes? Is it down-regulated DNA repair mechanisms? Is it cosmic rays, oxidative damage, or “carcinogens”? It depends on what you are asking. All of these contain an element of truth (and supportive data), but none of them are “the” cause of cancer unless you specify what you are asking and what you want to discuss. If you are a genetic counselor, genes are the focus. If you work for the EPA, carcinogens are the focus. You choose to narrow down your focus but doing so prevents an understanding of the broader question of how cancer occurs and why.

In the case of aging we find the same naiveté. The “cause” of aging depends on your assumptions, why you are asking, and how myopically you look at the process. In short, the question often presupposes the answer. As the Romans once said “Finis origine pendet”. The End hangs on the Beginning, or as too often the case (and using more modern phrasing), garbage in, garbage out. If you already presuppose the answer, then why are you asking? To truly understand how aging works, you need to erase your assumptions, step back, and look at the complexity without blinders or preconceptions. Looking at aging without preconceptions about “the” cause is almost always too much to ask.

There is, however, a more practical approach to understanding aging and the complex cascade of pathology that results from the aging process. Rather than looking for causes, look for effective interventions. If we ignore the deceptive question of causation for a moment and focus on intervention, then telomeres come to the center stage. It’s not that telomeres are in any sense the “cause” of aging, but telomeres are, without doubt, the single most effective point of intervention in the aging process and in age-related diseases.

Telomeres lie at the crossroads – from an interventional perspective – of everything going on in the aging cell. To extend the crossroads analogy, all the roads that lead to aging enter the crossroads of telomeres and all the roads leading toward age-related disease leave that same crossroads. The entire road system – that complex web of pathology that we call aging – consists of myriad highways, county roads, local by-ways, and even walking paths, but almost every one of them, eventually, passes though the same crossroads: the telomere.

Telomeres don’t cause aging and they are not the be-all-and-end-all of the aging process, but they do function as a pivot point, a sine qua non of age-related diseases, and – most importantly of all – the most efficient place to intervene.

Having put telomeres in a more reasonable perspective, what DO they do?

In an odd, but almost accurate sense, you might say that no one really knows. That’s true in two senses. The first sense is that there is simply a great deal that we’ve come to know about telomere mechanisms in the past few decades and there is doubtless a great deal more yet to find out about telomere mechanisms. That first sense, however, is true of everything: there’s a lot we don’t know and anyone who thinks otherwise is probably still in their teen years or has managed to get through life with their eyes (and their minds) closed. The second sense, however, is more specific to telomeres, the aging process, and age-related disease. This second sense is worth exploring, if only to realize the specific gaps in knowledge and how they might impinge on our ability to intervene clinically. This involves how telomeres affect gene expression. What we don’t know (for certain) is the linkage mechanisms, despite discussions about T-loops, sliding sheaths, and all the accompanying data involved over the past two decades. It’s still a bit of a black box. What we do know (for certain), is that telomere shortening changes gene expression (see figure 2.2a), and we do know (for certain) that when we reset telomere lengths we reset gene expression (see figure 2.2b).

We know that this change in gene expression is related to overall shortening and that the change in gene expression is more closely related to the shortest telomere than to the average telomere. We also know that all of this has nothing to do with telomeres “unraveling”. As we discussed before, they don’t unravel. It’s merely a pleasant myth based on the shoelace analogy. Telomeres may function a bit like aglets, but the chromosomal shoelace never unravels. Finally, we know that the absolute length doesn’t determine the changes in gene expression: it’s the relative telomere length that sets the pace of cell aging. Again, this is just the most common misconception, and one that causes inordinate confusion among researchers.

Once telomeres shorten, we know that gene expression changes not only on the same chromosome, but on other chromosomes as well. We know that the changes are progressive and subtle if you only look from one-cell-division-to-the-next (with the associated loss of base pairs). Yet over multiple cell divisions and thousands of base pair losses, these changes in gene expression add up, altering gene expression just enough to have effects upon DNA repair, mitochondrial efficiency, free radical production, lipid membrane competency, protein turnover, and myriad other processes that we associate with aging.

As we will see later in this series, it is this loss of telomere length and the crucial changes that it causes in gene expression that underlies aging and age-related disease, as well as explaining many other diseases, such as the progerias. It also explains why, when telomeres are preserved, cells gain indefinite proliferative potential whether in vitro or in vivo: they are, in common parlance if certainly not in fact, immortal.

Finally, all of this explains why, when we re-extend telomeres, whether in vitro or in vivo, we reset gene expression and not only allow cells to become fully functional again but allow the organism to become functional as well. In short, it explains why and how we may prevent and cure aging and age-related disease.

March 20, 2018

Aging and Disease: 2.0 – Cell senescence, Perspective

Most of us – when we think of cells at all – seldom appreciate that the idea of a “cell” is a modern idea, not quite two centuries old. One of the tenets of cell theory is that cells are the “basic unit of life”. This makes some sense but note that while the components of cells (mitochondria, for example) can’t live independently but can only survive as part of a cell, it’s also true that most cells don’t do very well independently either but can only survive as part of an organism. Nevertheless, and for good reason, cells are generally thought of at the building block of life, the unit out of which organisms are made. This sort of statement has exceptions (what about viruses?) and qualifications (some muscle “cells” tend to blur together), but overall, cells do function as the “basic unit of life”.

More importantly, most diseases operate at the cellular level or are most easily discussed in cellular terms. Want to understand the immune system? The focus is white blood cells. Want to understand heart attacks? The focus is the dying cardiac muscle cells. Want to understand Alzheimer’s? We tend to focus on dying neurons. In all these cases, other cells are not only involved, but are often the source of the pathology, but regardless of the complexities, qualifications, and exceptions, if you really want to understand a disease these days, you want to look at cells. You may be looking at an organ (such as the liver) or a tissue (such as the surface of a joint), but when push comes to shove, you need to get down into the cells to really understand how a disease works and what might be done about it.

Oddly enough, however, the idea of aging cells somehow never really took off until the middle of the last century. In fact, there was an overriding acceptance of the idea that cells did NOT age. Aging was (here, much hand waving occurred) something that happened between cells and not within them. Organisms certainly aged, while cells did not. This is not surprising when you think of the fact that all organisms derive from single (fertilized) cells that have a germ cell line going back to the origin of life, so while that cell line clearly hadn’t aged, you certainly aged. Voila! Cells don’t age, but you do. There was even a large body of (faulty) data showing that you could keep cells (in this case chicken heart muscle cells) alive and dividing “forever”.

In 1960, however, Len Hayflick pointed out that cells themselves age, and that this aging is related to the number of times the cells divides. Moreover, this rate of cell aging is specific to both species and cell type. While germ cell (think ova and sperm) don’t age, the normal “somatic cells” of an organism show cell aging. By the way, this aging had no relationship to the passage of time but was strictly controlled by the number of cell divisions. In other words, entropy and the passage of years was irrelevant. The only variable that mattered was cell division itself. Entropy only triumphed as cells divided and only in somatic cells. Len had no idea of how cells could count, although he termed this mechanism (whatever it was) the “replicometer” since it measured cell replications.

A decade later, Alexey Olovnikov figured out the mechanism. He pointed out that because of the way chromosomes replicated, every time you replicated a chromosome, you would lose a tiny piece at the end of the chromosome, the telomere. Clearly that wasn’t all there was to it or – since cells and chromosomes have been replicating for billions of years – there wouldn’t be any chromosomes (or life) left on the planet. There had to be something that could replace the missing piece, at least in some cells, such as the germ cell line. That something was telomerase. At least as importantly, however, Alexey pointed out that this was probably the mechanism of Len Hayflick’s “replicometer”: the number of cell divisions was measured in telomere loss.

As it turns out, Len (about cell divisions) and Alexey (about telomeres) were both right. The connection was finally shown in 1990 by Cal Harley and his colleagues, who found that telomere length exactly predicted cell aging and vice versa: if you knew one, you knew the other. At first, this was merely correlation, if a remarkably good one, but it didn’t take more than a few more years to show that telomere loss determined cell aging. Specifically, if you reset the length of the telomere, then you reset cell aging. If, for example, you reset the telomere length in human cells, then those “old” cells now looked and acted exactly like young cells. In short: you could reverse cell aging at will.

This prompted the first book (Reversing Human Aging, 1996) and the first articles in the medical literature (published in JAMA, 1997 & 1998) to suggest that not only did cell aging underlie and explain human aging, but that cell aging could be reversed, and that the clinical potential was unprecedented in the ability to cure and prevent age-related human disease. This was rapidly followed by a set of experiments showing that if you reextended telomeres in aged human cells, you could grow young, healthy human tissues in vitro, specifically in human skin, arterial tissue, and bone. The entire area was extensively reviewed in what is still the only medical textbook on this area (Cells, Aging, and Human Disease; Oxford University Press, 2004). Since then, there have been at least three peer-reviewed publications looking at the use of telomerase activators, each of which showed intriguing and significant (if not dramatic) improvements in many age-related biomarkers (e.g., immune response, insulin response, bone density, etc.).

In a landmark paper (Nature, 2011), DePinho and his group, then at Harvard, showed that telomerase activation in aged mice resulted in impressive (and unprecedented) improvements not only in biomarkers, but (to mention CNS-related findings alone) in brain weight, neural stem cells, and behavior. This was followed by an even more impressive result (EMBO Molecular Medicine, 2012) by Blasco and her group (at the CNIO in Madrid), who showed that the same results could be accomplished using gene therapy to deliver a telomerase gene to aged mice. This result was the more impressive because precisely the same approach can be used in human trials.

Exactly this technique is planned for human Alzheimer’s disease trials next year. But to get there, we need to understand not only the background history, but how cells themselves age, the results of cell aging, and why we can intervene.

Next time: 2.1 Cell senescence, why cells divide

 

Aging and Disease: An Index

For those interested in knowing where this blog is going (or where it has been), here is an index of all previous and planned posts for this series on Aging and Disease. Note that the planned posts may change as we progress.

0.1 Prologue

1.0 Aging, our purpose, our perspective

1.1 Aging, what is isn’t

1.2 Aging, what we have to explain

1.3 Aging, what it is

1.4 Aging, the overview

1.5 Aging, misconceptions

2.0 Cell senescence, perspective

2.1 Why cells divide

2.2 Telomeres

2.3 Changes in gene expression

2.4 Changes in molecular turnover

2.5 Changes in molecular turnover, most molecules

2.6 Changes in molecular turnover, DNA repair

2.7 Changes in molecular turnover, Mitochondria

2.8 Changes in molecular turnover, extra-cellular molecules

2.9 Cell senescence and tissue aging

3.0 Aging disease

3.1 Cancer

3.2 Direct and indirect aging

3.3 Skin

3.4 Immune system

3.5 Osteoarthritis

3.6 Osteoporosis

3.7 Arterial (vascular) disease

3.8 CNS disease

3.9 CNS: Parkinson’s disease

3.10 CNS: Alzheimer’s disease

4.0 Treating age-related disease, what doesn’t work, small molecular approaches

4.1 What doesn’t work, killing senescent cells

4.2 What works, lowering risks

4.3 What works, resetting gene expression

5.0 Telomerase in the Clinic

March 15, 2018

Aging and Disease: 1.5 – Aging, Misconceptions

Misconceptions regarding the current model of aging are rampant and they tend to fall into one of several categories. These include Straw man arguments, unfamiliarity with how age-related human pathology occurs, simplistic views cell senescence, genes, and expression, or misguided approaches to measuring telomeres (usually in the wrong cells).

Straw man arguments

          The Earth can’t possibly be round, or you’d fall off the other side.

This sort of argument attacks a position by attacking the wrong target, then claiming victory. The approach is called a “straw man argument”. Rather than facing an actual opponent (or making a logical argument), you build a man out of straw (or offer up a faulty premise), attack it and beat it (or disprove the faulty premise), then claim that you have beaten your opponent (or proven your entire argument). Straw man arguments are safer and easier but they’re dishonest and they don’t lead to clinical progress.

Several centuries ago, some clerics argued that if Copernicus was right about the sun being the center of the solar system, then he must be denying the existence of God (the straw man) and the truth of the Bible (another straw man). Never mind the astronomical data: critics focused on the religious straw man. A century ago, some people argued that humans could never fly because humans are heavier than air. You couldn’t deny the straw man (we really are heavier than air), but it didn’t affect validity of flying machines. Even the Wright brothers would be shocked senseless by the weight of the modern commercial jet. History is replete with “disproof’s” that misrepresent or make wildly erroneous straw man arguments about new thoughts, new theories, and new technologies.

Straw man arguments do nothing but prevent progress.

The telomerase theory of aging has frequently been criticized using straw man arguments. The most common example is suggesting that telomere length (instead of change in length) is important to aging, then demolishing the straw man. Cellular aging – as marked by changes in gene expression – is not modulated by telomere length but is modulated by changes in telomere length. Telomere length per se is a straw man. The fact that some young mice have 150kbp telomeres (but a 2-year lifespan) while some young humans have 15kbp telomerase (but 80-year lifespans) is irrelevant: it’s a straw man. Cell aging is determined by the gradual changes in gene expression and these are determined by relative telomere loss, not by absolute telomere length. To say that some species have longer telomeres and shorter lifespans while other species have shorter telomeres and longer lifespans is interesting but misses the point. Telomere length (the straw man) has nothing to do with lifespan or cell aging. The key factor isn’t length, but the change in length of the telomeres and – more directly – how the changing length of telomeres changes the pattern of gene expression. To focus on telomere length creates a wild goose chase. The key feature is not the telomere (and certainly not the absolute telomere length), but the patterns of gene expression as modulated by the changes in telomere length over time.

Human pathology: which cells cause the disease?

A more egregious error occurs when the straw man is due to a stunning naiveté regarding age-related pathology. In this case the error lies in misunderstanding clinical medicine rather than in misunderstanding telomere biology. This type of straw man argument has surfaced repeatedly online, in articles, and (sadly) even in academic discussions. The two most typical (and most egregious) examples aim at heart disease and dementia. The most typical false statements are:

  1. Cell aging can’t explain heart disease, since heart cells don’t divide.
  2. Cell aging can’t explain dementia, since neurons don’t divide.

These statements, as is often the case, tell us far more about the critic than they tell us about the target of the criticism. In these two examples, we discover that the critics have no understanding of the clinical pathology underlying either heart disease or dementia. The two statements are not only straw man arguments but display an extraordinary lack of clinical knowledge. While it’s true that heart cells and neurons generally don’t divide, that fact has nothing to do with the actual disease process nor the role of cell aging.

Classical “heart” disease (i.e., myocardial infarction, angina, etc.) doesn’t begin in the heart muscle (whose cells rarely divide), but in the endothelial cells that line the coronary arteries (whose cells divide regularly). The observation that heart cells don’t divide is (more or less) accurate but has nothing to do with heart disease being caused by cell aging. Heart muscle cells are the innocent bystanders. The vascular endothelial cells are where the pathology begins. To blame heart disease on heart muscle cells is like blaming the murder victim rather than the murderer. Heart cells are the victim, not the perpetrator. We might have equally (and just as foolishly) said that “cholesterol can’t explain heart disease, since heart cells don’t accumulate cholesterol.” The latter is true, but it’s hardly relevant. Cholesterol’s role (like that of cell aging) lies in the vascular lining cells, not in the heart muscle cells. Whether we are talking about cell aging or cholesterol deposits, the heart cells are the innocent bystanders and it’s the coronary arteries that are the problem. Cell aging accurately explains everything we know of human “heart disease”, as well as age-related vascular disease generally (e.g., strokes, aneurysms, peripheral vascular disease, congestive heart failure, etc.). The straw man arguments are disingenuous and largely based on a willful (a woeful) ignorance of human age-related disease.

Much the same is true for dementia. Neurons don’t divide (much, if at all, in the adult human), but glial cells (such as microglia) both divide and have been implicated in the basic pathology that underlies Alzheimer’s and many other dementias. We know, for example, that Alzheimer’s patients have shorter telomeres than do age-matched patients without Alzheimer’s. In short, cell aging explains dementia logically and accurately, while the lack of neuronal cell division has nothing to do with the argument (or the disease). In this context, such Straw man arguments display the distressing naiveté of those using them.

Cell senescence, genes, and expression

Cell senescence is often regarded as all-or-nothing: a cell is either young or old, but never anything in-between. Over the past half century, this error has often resulted in people speaking past one another, never recognizing that they have different definitions of “cell senescence”. While it’s true that there is an endpoint (a senescent cell that is incapable of division or much else), short of that extreme, cell senescence remains a relative matter. This is not only seen in the physiology (how well does the cell function?) but in terms of gene expression. Like cell senescence, gene expression is not all-or-nothing. It’s true that a particular gene at a particular time is either being transcribed or not, but if we look at the rate of gene expression over any reasonable time duration (e.g., an hour, a day, or a week), we see that the rate of gene expression looks more like a continuum. You might say that it’s “analog” rather than “digital”. More importantly, that rate of gene expression can be seen to change not only over time, but as an integral part of cell senescence. In “older” cells, while we find that the genes and gene transcription process is perfectly normal (i.e., the same quality of genes and gene transcription as a “young” cell), we find that the rate of gene expression is now quite different. Putting it simply, the rate of gene expression slows down as a cell segues from a young cell to a senescent cell. Thinking of cell senescence and gene expression as all-or-nothing is a troublesome error but is not the only error when it comes to genes and aging.

Perhaps the most rampant error lies in thinking of “aging genes”. A century ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear people talk about genes for any number of things: intelligence, beauty, compassion, etc. While there are genes that play a role in these (and myriad other characteristics), the relationship between intelligence and genes has proven to be remarkably complex, requiring input from epigenetics, environment, diet, and other factors. Even if we restrict ourselves to genes alone, there are probably hundreds of genes that play a role in determining intelligence. Moreover, these same genes also play dozens of roles at once, including roles in immunity, endocrine development, motor function, memory, and cells throughout the body and in every tissue. So are these genes really “intelligence” genes? To think of them that way is merely to expose both our ignorance and our naiveté. These are systems genes; they play dozens (hundreds?) of interacting roles in virtually every part of the body. Much the same can be said for “aging” genes. Short of a few genes that characterize some of the progerias (for example, the lamin-A gene in H-G progeria), there are no aging genes. To look at your gene scan and point to an “aging gene” is exactly like the early phrenologists who looked at your skull and pointed to a “bump of combativeness” or a “bump of sublimity”. There are no such bumps and there are no such “aging genes”. There are certainly genes that play a role (or much more likely, play multiple roles) in the aging process. Unquestionably, there are innumerable genes that increase (or decrease) your risk of age-related diseases or that increase (or decrease) the probable length of your lifespan, but there are no specific “aging genes”, unless you’d like to go to the other extreme and acknowledge that all genes are aging genes, as in some sense, they are.

Misguided approaches to measuring telomeres

About once every two weeks, I receive a research article that goes something like this. The authors measured the telomeres of several dozen volunteers, then performed an intervention (changed the diet, taught them meditation, increased their daily exercise, etc.), then measured the telomeres again in six months, and found that the telomeres had lengthened. They conclude that the intervention lengthens telomeres (and, by implication, reverses aging). While they might be right, the data prove certainly don’t justify their conclusions. If they are right, they are right despite poor design, poor analysis, poor thinking, and a very shaky knowledge of cells. There are several problems these types of study, starting with the fact that almost every one of these studies only measures telomere lengths in white blood cells, which are easy to obtain, but not particularly useful (nor are they valid or reliable, as we’ll see). A typical study of this type is summarized in Figure 1.5a.

The first problem is that even if they truly lengthened the telomeres in those white blood cells (and see below), most of us die of aging cells in our arteries or aging cells in our brains (not to mention the problems we have with our joints, our bones, our kidneys, etc.). Measuring the telomeres in white cells tells us precisely nothing about these more important cells and tissues. It’s much like using hair color (how gray is your hair?) to assess your risk for having a heart attack or Alzheimer’s disease. White cells are the wrong cells to look at. They may be easy to get, but they don’t get you anywhere.

The second problem is that white cells are a dynamic population and they respond to almost any stress by dividing (and shortening their telomeres). Once the stress is gone, the white cells get replaced by “younger” white cells (with longer telomeres) from the stem cells in your bone marrow. So, you might say that if you only measure your white cell telomeres, then you will appear older as a result of any stress and you will appear younger again once the stress goes away. For example, you will appear to have older white cells if you have an infection, if you just had a loved one die, if you lost your job, or if you are malnourished. The opposite is equally true: your white cells will appear younger if your stress resolves, since your white cells will then be replaced with “younger” cells from the stem cell compartment in your bone marrow. Note that if we actually measured your bone marrow cells (and not the circulating white cells), you would find that your hematopoietic stem cells are slowly aging almost regardless of what you do. Whether we cure your infection, improve your diet, make you exercise regularly, or have you meditate, makes little difference to your marrow cells. Almost any clinical intervention might affect your circulating white cells, but there is no evidence that any intervention can make your stem cells younger (or can increase their telomeres). To focus on the white cell telomeres is an illusion. This is not to say that these various interventions aren’t useful and may not improve your health, but there is no evidence that any of these interventions make you any younger. For that matter, there may be evidence that these interventions change the particular white cells you sample (so the new sample has longer telomeres), but there is no evidence that these interventions lengthen telomeres, let alone make you any younger.

To give you an analogy, imagine that you are trying to make people younger in a large country (the US, for example), so you measure the average age in a particular block of a major city (Boston, for example), then you perform an intervention (an urban renewal program, for example) over several decades (between 1950 and 2018, for example), then measure the average age of people living in that same block. The average age may well be lower in 2018 than it was in 1950, but that does NOT mean that you have made anyone get younger and it certainly doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is now younger. The population has changed: some people moved out, some moved in and those that moved in tended to be younger.

The same thing happens when you measure white cell telomeres: the old white cells are gone, and new white cells have “moved into the block”. To conclude that you have made the white cells (let alone the whole body) younger is silly, to say nothing of entirely unsupported by the data. This is not to say that the various interventions purported to affect telomeres and/or aging (meditation, vegetarian diets, exercise, or in one case, living in zero gravity) may not have physical benefits (or that they might actually affect telomeres or aging), but that not a single one of these various interventions has valid data to answer those questions. Measuring peripheral white cell telomere lengths is not only fraught with errors, but (at least as far as most current research goes) has approximately the same validity as casting a horoscope.

Finally, most telomere measurements are done by average length, which is relatively cheap but not particularly relevant. Tissue function is highly dependent upon the oldest (not the average) cells in the tissue and cell function is highly dependent upon the shortest (not the average) telomere in the cells. Measuring the average telomere may be cheap and easy, but it’s like trying to figure out the risk of terrorism in a city by measuring the average person. The average person isn’t a terrorist, but that’s not the point. It’s the extremes that determine the overall risk of terrorism in a community. It only takes a few terrorists to result in disaster and, in your tissues, it only takes a few senescent cells to result in disease. Within the cells, it only takes a few short telomeres to result in a dysfunctional cell. The upshot is that when we measure telomere lengths, the measurement that is most often used is the measurement that doesn’t tell you what you know. The result is that most studies measure the wrong thing and then, with perfect confidence, draw the entirely unwarranted conclusions. No wonder the literature is misleading.

Understanding aging – and understanding cell aging – is replete with pitfalls and misconceptions that are all-too-common, even in the research literature. Leaving these caveats aside for now, however, let’s delve directly into the aging process itself, starting with the cell.

How does a cell age?

 

Next time: Aging and Disease: 2.0 – Cell senescence, Perspective

February 1, 2018

Aging and Disease: 1.0 – Aging, Our Purpose, Our Perspective:

Aging is poorly understood, While the process seems obvious, the reality is far more complex than we realize. In this series of blogs I will explain how aging works and how aging results in disease. In passing, I will touch upon why aging occurs and will culminate in an explanation of the most effect single point of intervention, both clinically and financially. We will likewise explore the techniques, costs, and hurdles in taking such intervention into common clinical use in the next few years.

The approach will be magesterial, rather than academic. I do not mean to preclude differences of opinion, but my intent is not to argue. I will explain how aging works, rather than engage in theoretical disputes. Many of the current academic disputes regarding aging are predicated on unexamined assumptions and flawed premises, resulting in flawed conclusions. Rather than argue about the conclusions; I will start from basics, highlight common pitfalls in our assumptions and premises, then proceed to show how aging and age-related diseases occur.

Since this is not and is not intended to be an “Academic” series (capitalization is intentional), I will aim at the educated non-specialist and will usually omit references, in order to make engagement easier for all of us as the series proceeds. If any of you would like references, more than 4,200 academic references are available in my medical textbook on this topic, Cells, Aging, and Human Disease (Oxford University Press, 2004). For those of you with a deep intellectual exploration of this topic, I recommend you read my textbook. Ironically, my academic textboo is still largely up-to-date with regard to the patholgy and to the aging process in general, if not so with regard to current interventional techniques for human clinical use.

The first book and medical articles that explained aging were published two decades ago, including Reversing Human Aging (1996) and the first two articles in the medical literature (both in JAMA, in 1997 and 1998). There are no earlier or more complete explanations of how aging works, nor of the potential for effective clinical intervention in aging and age-related disease. Since then, I have published additional articles and books that explain the aging process and potentially effective clinical interventions. The most recent, and most readable of these (The Telomerase Revolution, 2015) is meant for the lay reader and is available in 7 languages and 10 global editions. For those of you who want to know more, I encourage you to explore this book, which was praisde in both The London Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, the focus will be the theory of aging; a theory that is valid, accurate, consistant with known data, predictively valid, and testable. This will not be a narrow discussion of the “telomere theory of aging”, which is a misnomer, but a detailed discussion of how aging works and what can be done about it using current techniques. A factual and accurate explanation of aging relies on telomeres, but also must addrss mechanisms of genes and genetics, gene expression changes and epigenetics, cell senescence and changes in cell function, mitochondrial changes and ROS, molecular turnover and recycling, DNA damage and cancer, “bystander” cells and “direct aging”, tissue pathology and human disease, and – above all – how we may intervene to alleviate and prevent such disease. The proof is not “in the pudding”, but in the ability to save lifes, prevent tragedy, and improve health.

The proof is in human lives.

This theory of aging has several key features. It is the only theory that accounts for all of the current biological and medical data. It is internally consistent. It is predictively valid: for the past 20 years, it has predicted both academic research results and the clinical outcomes of pharmaceutical trials accurately and reliably in every case. These predictions include the results of monoclonal antibody trials in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other Alzheimer’s clinical trials, other clinical trials for age-related disease, and animal research (in vivo and in vitro). Perhaps the most fundamental feature of this theroy of aging is that it is an actual theory, i.e., testable and falsiable. A “theory” that cannot be disproven isn’t science, but philosophy. Many of what we think of as “theories of aging” cannot meet this criteria. If they cannot be disproven, they are not science, but mere will-o’-the-wisps.

If the theory of aging has a single name – other than the “telomere theory of aging” — it might be the epigenetic theory of aging. Despite misconceptions and misunderstandings about what it says (both of which I will try to remedy here), the epigenetic theory of aging has stood the test of time for the past two decades. It remains the only rational explanation of the aging process, while remaining consistent, comprehensive, and predictively valid. When it predicted failure of an intervention, the intervention has failed. When it predicted an effective intervention, the intervention has proven effective. Whether it’s the telomere theory of aging or the epigenetic theory of aging, in this series, we will proceed to get our conceptual hands dirty and look carefully at what happens when aging occurs, why it happens, where it happens, and what can be done about it. We’re going to go at this step-by-step, going into detail, and showing why we can intervene in both the basic aging process and human age-related diseases.

I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

 

Next blog:       1.1 – Aging, What is Isn’t

January 23, 2018

Aging and Disease: 0.1 – A Prologue

Aging and Disease

0.1 – A Prologue

Over the past 20 years, I have published numerous articles, chapters, and books explaining how aging and age-related disease work, as well as the potential for intervention in both aging and age-related disease. The first of these publications was Reversing Human Aging (1996), followed by my articles in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) in 1997 and 1998. Twenty years ago, it was my fervent hope that these initial forays, the first publications to ever describe not only how the aging process occurs, but the prospects for effective clinical intervention, would trigger interest, growing understanding, and clinical trials to cure age-related disease. Since then, I have published a what is still the only medical textbook on this topic (Cells, Aging, and Human Disease, 2004), as well as a more recently lauded book (The Telomerase Revolution, 2015) that explains aging and disease, as well as how we can intervene in both. While the reality of a clinical intervention has been slow to come to fruition, we now have the tools to accomplish those human trials and finally move into the clinic. In short, we now have the ability to intervene in aging and age-related disease.

Although we now have the tools, understanding has lagged a bit for most people. This knowledge and acceptance have been held back by any number of misconceptions, such as the idea that “telomeres fray and the chromosomes come apart” or that aging is controlled by telomere length (rather than the changes in telomere lengths). Academics have not been immune to these errors. For example, most current academic papers persist in measuring peripheral blood cell telomeres as though such cells were an adequate measure of tissue telomeres or in some way related to the most common age-related diseases. Peripheral telomeres are largely independent of the telomeres in our coronary arteries and in our brains and it is our arteries and our brains that cause most age-related deaths, not our white blood cells. The major problem, howevere, lies in understanding the subtlety of the aging process. Most people, even academics, researchers, and physicians, persist in seeing aging as mere entropy, when the reality is far more elusive and far more complex. Simplistic beliefs, faulty assumptions, and blindly-held premises are the blinders that have kept us powerless for so long.

It is time to tell the whole story.

While my time is not my own – I’d rather begin our upcoming human trials and demonstrate that we can cure Alzhiemer’s disease than merely talk about all of this – I will use this blog for a series of more than 30 mini-lectures that will take us all the way from “chromosomes to nursing homes”. We will start with an overview of aging itself, then focus in upon what actually happens in human cells as they undergo senesceence, then finally move downstream and look at how these senescent changes result in day-to-day human aging and age-relate disease. In so doing, when we discuss cell aging, we will get down into the nitty-gritty of ROS, mitochondria, gene expression, leaky membranes, scavenger molecules, molecular turnover, collagen, beta amyloid, mutations, gene repair, as well as the mathematics of all of this. Similarly, when we discuss human disease, we will get down into the basic pathology of cancer, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and all “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. We will look at endothelial cells and subendothelial cells, glial cells and neurons, osteoclasts and osteoblasts, fibroblasts and keratinocytes, chondrocytes, and a host of other players whose failure results in what we commonly think of aging.

I hope that you’ll join me as we, slowly, carefully, unravel the mysteries of aging, the complexities of age-related disease, and the prospects for effective intervention.

December 31, 2017

Human Nature

Many of you have written to me, expressing surprise about the lack of public reaction (such as media interest) regarding the potential for telomerase therapy to treat age-related diseases. Some of you wonder why people (and particularly the media) “don’t get it”. I’ve had the same thought for a bit more than two decades now, since I published the first book and the first articles on the potential of telomerase therapy. The lack of understanding applies not only to the media, which is neither critical nor surprising, but to many in the investment community and to the pharmacology industry, which is critical if we are to save human lives.

The major reason for that lack of understanding is human nature. Most people have a firmly-held misconception about how aging works and never realize the error. Without thinking about it (which is the fundamental problem), most people think of aging as entropy. In reality, aging is a lot more complicated (as are most things). Aging isn’t the same as entropy; aging is the gradual inability of cell maintenance to keep up with entropy, which is a very different kettle of fish. Aging hinges on the balance between entropy and maintenance. If you think about it, that’s really what biology is all about: maintaining a extremely complex system in the face of entropy. Life is resistance to entropy. Life is continually building, recycling, and maintaining a complex system, that is continually coming apart, thanks to entropy. This is a balance that works quite well generally, which is why life still continues quite splendidly on this planet, a good three and a half billion years after it began. Who says you can’t resist entropy indefinitely?

Nor is aging universal, just because we see it in ourselves, our pets, and the animals we raise. In some organisms (some multi-cellular and some unicellular), aging never occurs. In other organisms (again, some multi-cellular and some unicellular), aging occurs quite predictably as maintenance slows down, allowing entropy to have its way as the organism ages, fails, and dies. While aging is a lot more than just entropy, most people never even begin to consider the facts and sail along with the unexamined assumption that “aging is entropy”.

It’s not that simple. It never is.

Nor are telomeres the “cause” of aging. Telomeres don’t cauase aging, they are just one (very important) part of an enormously complicated cascade of processes that result in age-related pathology and aging itself. Telomeres are important only because they play a key role at the crossroads of this cascade of pathology. Being at the crossroads, telomeres represent the single most effective point of intervention, both clinically and financially. Theye are the only place that we can entirely reset the gradualy deceleration in cell maintenance with a single intervention and it’s the only place that we can leverage our interventions into a strikingly lower cost of health care. Better care, for less cost.

The other problem that keeps people from appreciating the potential of telomerase therapy is inertia, or perhaps inertia and the fear of undermining their own careers. It’s not merely the inertia of never examining our assumptions, but the professional inertia that occurs when we suspect that – should we examine those assumptions – our entire professional lifetime of work may have been not only misdirected, but be seen as valueless, a truly frightening thought and an understandable fear. Human nature being what it is, the result is a stolid inertia from professionals who have spent many decades pursuing a faulty (and incomplete) model of aging and age-related disease. If any of us had spent 40 years of our professional life working for certain global pharmaceutical firms, for example, we would be loathe to give up the assumption that beta amyloid causes Alzheimer’s disease. After all, that model (despite lacking any support) has been the central focus, the raison-d’etre, for everything we have done professionally for several decades. Would any of us be willing to look clearly at reality, knowing that an honest, thoughtful, and careful appraisal of reality might suggest we had wasted those years, along with our personal efforts and dedication? It is asking too much of human nature. In a corporate, rather than a personal sense, this is equally true of drug companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in what has now been proven to be a fruitless endeavor. The endeavor has been aimed at the wrong target, but it’s a lot of years, a lot of money, and a lot of effort, making it difficult to be honest about the prospects, let alone willing to go back to square one and ask if our assumptions were wrong in the first place. Old adages notwithstanding, people and institutions really do “throw good money after bad” and we do it both with a will and stunning consistency.

Yet, there is reason for a realistic optimism. Over the past two decades, there are a growing number of people who look at the data, reexamine their assumptions, and develop a close relationship with the reality of how aging works. That number continues to escalate, and the time when we can take telomerase therapy to an effective clinical trial continues to shrink. We see resources and commitment moving steadily toward a more sophisticated understanding of both Alzheimer’s disease and aging itself. The combination of resources and commitment will soon bring us to a new ability to treat diseases that, until now, have been beyond our understanding, let alone beyond our help.

We have the compassion to save lives; we will soon have the ability.

December 1, 2017

Big Pharma: Still Looking for the Horse

About a century ago, in a small American town, the first automobile chugged to a stop in front of the general store, where a local man stared at the apparition in disbelief, then asked “where’s your horse?” A long explanation followed, involving internal combustion, pistons, gasoline, and driveshafts. The local listened politely but with growing frustration, then broke in on the explanation. “Look”, he said, “I get all that, but what I still want to know is ‘where is your horse?’”

About three hours ago, in a teleconference with a major global pharmaceutical company, I was invited to talk about telomerase therapy and why it might work for Alzheimer’s, since it doesn’t actually lower beta amyloid levels. I explained about senescent gene expression, dynamic protein pools whose recycling rates slow significantly, causing a secondary increase in amyloid plaques, tau tangles, and mitochondrial dysfunction. The pharmaceutical executive listened (not so politely) with growing frustration, then broke in on the explanation. “Look”, she said, “I get all that, but what I still want to know is how does telomerase lower beta amyloid levels?”

In short, she wanted to know where I had hidden the horse.

The global pharmaceutical company that invited me to talk with them had, earlier this year, given up on its experimental Alzheimer’s drug that aimed at lowering beta amyloid levels, since it had no effect on the clinical course. None. They have so far wasted several years and several hundred million dollars chasing after amyloid levels, and now (as judged by our conversation) they still intent on wasting more time and money chasing amyloid levels. We offered them a chance to ignore amyloid levels and simply correct the underlying problem. While not changing the amyloid levels, we can clean up the beta amyloid plaques, as well as the tau tangles, the mitochondrial dysfunction, and all the other biomarkers of Alzheimer’s. More importantly, we can almost certainly improve the clinical course and largely reverse the cognitive decline. In short, we have a new car in town.

As with so many other big pharmaceutical companies, this company is so focused on biomarkers that they can’t focus on what those markers imply in terms of the dynamic pathology and the altered protein turnover that underlies age-related disease, including Alzheimer’s disease. And we wonder why all the drug trials continue to fail. The executive who asked about amyloid levels is intelligent and experienced, but wedded to an outmoded model that has thus far shown no financial reward and – worse yet – no clinical validity. It doesn’t work. Yet this executive met with me as part of a group seeking innovative approaches to treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Their vision is that they are looking for innovation.

The reality is that they are still looking for the horse.

October 10, 2017

Should everyone respond the same to telomerase?

A physician friend asked if a patient’s APOE status (which alleles they carry, for example APOE4, APOE3, or APOE2) would effect how well they should respond to telomerase therapy. Ideally, it may not make much difference, except that the genes you carry (including the APOE genes and the alleles for each type of APOE gene, as well as other genes linked to Alzheimer’s risk) determine how your risk goes up with age. For example, those with APOE4 alleles (especially if both are APOE4) have a modestly higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease (and at a lower age) than those with APOE2 alleles (expecially if both are APOE2).

Since telomerase doesn’t change your genes or the alleles, then while it should reset your risk of dementia to that of a younger person, your risk (partly determined by your genes) would then operate “all over again”, just as it did before. Think of it this way. If it took you 40 years to get dementia and we reset your risk using telomerase, then it might take you 40 years to get dementia again. If it took you 60 years to get dementia and we reset your risk using telomerase, then it might take you 60 years to get dementia again. It wouldn’t remove your risk of dementia, but it should reset your risk to what it was when you were younger. While the exact outcomes are still unknown, it is clear is that telomerase shouldn’t get rid of your risk, but it might be expected to reset that risk to what it was several years (or decades) before you were treated with telomerase. Your cells might act younger, but your genes are still your genes, and your risk is still (again) your risk.

The same could be said for the rate of response to telomerase therapy. How well (and how quickly) a patient should respond to telomerasse therapy should depend on how much damage has already occurred, which (again) is partially determined by your genes (including APOE genes and dozens of others). Compared to a patient with APOE2 alleles (the “good” APOE alleles), we might expect the clinical response for a patient with APOE4 alleles (the “bad” APOE alleles) to have a slightly slower respone to telomerase, a peak clinical effect that was about the same, and the time-to-retreatment to be just a big shorter. The reality should depend on how fast amyloid plaques accumulates (varying from person to person) and how fast we might be able to remove the plaque (again, probably varying from person to person). The vector (slope of the line from normal to onset of dementia) should be slightly steeper for those with two APOE4 alleles than for two APOE3 alleles, which would be slightly steeper than for two APOE2 alleles. Those with unmatched alleles (APOE4/APOE2) should vary depending upon which two alleles they carried.

To give a visual idea of what we might expect, I’ve added an image that shows the theoretical response of three different patients (a, b, and c), each of whom might respond equally well to telomerase therapy, but might then need a second treatment at different times, depending on their genes (APOE and other genes) and their environment (for example, head injuries, infections, diet, etc.). Patient c might need retreatment in a few years, while patient a might not need retreatment for twice as long.

 

September 20, 2017

Genes and Aging

Several of you have asked why I don’t update this blog more often. My priority is to take effective interventions for age-related diseases to FDA phase 1 human trials, rather than blogging about the process. Each week, Outlook reminds me to update the blog, but there are many tasks that need doing if we are going to get to human trials, which remains our primary target.

In working on age-related disease, however, I am reminded that we can do very little unless we understand aging. Most of us assume we already understand what we mean by aging, but our assumptions prevent us from a more fundamental and valid understanding of the aging process. In short, our unexamined assumptions get in the way of effective solutions. To give an analogy, if we start with the assumption that the Earth is the center of the solar system, then no matter how carefully we calculate the orbits of the planets, we will fail. If we start with the assumption that the plague results from evil spirits rather than Yersinia pestis, then no matter how many exorcisms we invoke, we will fail. We don’t fail because of any lack of effort, we fail because of misdirected effort.

Our assumptions define the limits of our abilities.

When we look at aging, too often we take only a narrow view. Humans age, as do all the mammals and birds (livestock and pets come to mind) that have played common roles in human culture and human history. When most people think of aging, they seldom consider trees, hydra, yeast, bacteria, or individual cells (whatever the species). Worse, even when we do look at these, we never question our quotidian assumptions. We carry our complacent assumptions along with us, a ponderous baggage, dragging us down, restricting our ability to move ahead toward a more sophisticated (and accurate) understanding. If we looked carefully, we would see that not all cells age and not all organisms age. Moreover, of those that age, not all organisms age at the same rate and, within an organism, not all cells age at the same rate. In short, neither the rate of aging, nor aging itself is universal. As examples, dogs age faster than humans and, among humans, progeric children age faster than normal humans. The same is true when we consider cells: somatic cells age faster than stem cells, while germ cells (sperm and ova) don’t age at all. So much for aging being universal.

The key question isn’t “why do all things age?”, but rather “why does aging occur in some cases and not in others, and at widely different rates when it occurs at all?” The answer certainly isn’t hormones, heartbeats, entropy, mitochondria, or free radicals, for none of these can explain the enormous disparity in what ages and what doesn’t, nor why cells age at different rates. Nor is aging genetic in any simplistic sense. While genes play a prominent role in how we age, there are no “aging genes”. Aging is not a “genetic disease”, but rather a matter of epigenetics – it’s not which genes you have, but how those genes are expressed and how their expression changes over time, particularly over the life of the organism or over multiple cell divisions in the life of a cell. In a sense, you age not because of entropy, but because your cells downregulate the ability to maintain themselves in the face of that entropy. Cell senescence effects a broad change in gene expression that results in a gradual failure to deal with DNA repair, mitochondrial repair, free radical damage, and molecular turnover in general. Aging isn’t a matter of damage, it’s a matter of no longer repairing the damage.

All of this wouldn’t matter – it’s mere words and theory – were it not for our ability to intervene in age-related disease. Once we understand how aging works, once we look carefully at our assumptions and reconsider them, our more accurate and fundamental understanding allows suggests how we might cure age-related disease, to finally treat the diseases we have so long thought beyond our ability. It is our ability to see with fresh eyes, to look at all organisms and all cells without preconceptions, that permits us to finally do something about Alzheimer’s and other age-related disease.

Only an open mind will allow us to save lives.

 

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