Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

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.

 

August 10, 2017

Progeria and Telomerase

Recently, John Cooke at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, showed that telomerase, when expressed in cells from progeric children, caused a “substantial physiologically relevant and meaningful effect on the lifespan and function of the cells.” As many of you know, progeria is a disease in which young children appear old, with baldness and osteoarthritis, and usually die of advanced cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks, typically around age twelve. In short, they appear to have extremely rapid aging. Cooke’s results suggested that telomerase might offer a therapy. Oddly enough, both Cooke and the media described this finding as “surprising”.

While these results are promising, they are hardly surprising. In 1996, I published a book going into this prospect in detail, then wrote the first medical papers on this the medical potential in JAMA in 1997 and 1998. This was followed up with a medical textbook which explored the entire area in 2004, and another book in 2015 that described the medical potential of telomerase. What is truly surprising is not the most recent results, but that anyone finds the results at all surprising.

While not actually surprising, they present a bitter irony, in that any number of deaths, including deaths of progeric children, might have been prevented and may still be prevented if we only understand and act upon what we have known for two decades and which Cooke’s results only highlight again.

The irony – and my exquisite personal frustration – is that I proposed this approach annually in our global meetings for progeric children, starting twenty years ago. For about a decade, beginning several years before the turn of the millennium, I had been part of the annual global reunion of progeric children. Each year, we gathered with perhaps three dozen progeric children and their families from around the world, giving them a chance to meet one another, to talk with experts, and … to feel normal among other children and families who had the same problems. In 1999, among those progeric children was a young boy, whose parents were both physicians, and who were desperate to find a cure for progeria. Although I explained the potential of using telomerase as an intervention, they founded the Progeria Research Foundation and aimed it solely at genetic markers rather than epigenetic intervention. They managed to get significant funding through the NIH, fund raising, and government contacts in order to fund a set of studies that localized the genetic error responsible for progeria. As I predicted, none of the subsequent therapies based on their approach have had any effect on the disease. Worse yet, and like all the other progeric children I have known over the years, their son died of progeria. Had we gone straight to telomere-based interventions rather than taking the detour, many progeric children – not merely their son — might have been treated more effectively.

John Cooke and his colleagues have done well to show that they can reverse the problems seen in progeric cells, yet others have gone further. Maria Blasco’s group, for example, has shown that she can not merely reset aging in cells, as Cooke’s group has, but can do the same in animals. Moreover, we are collaborating with her group to take this approach in our upcoming human clinical trials next year, initially aiming at Alzheimer’s disease.

The fact that this comes as a surprise, given what we have known about the potential of telomerase for more than 20 years is a tragic example of wasted opportunities, wasted funding, and wasted lives. Telomerase was shown to reverse aging in cells 20 years ago; telomerase showed its value in animals 5 years ago; Telocyte is ready to show the benefits of telomerase in human trials next year.

April 12, 2017

We Already Know It Works

Oddly enough, many investors don’t realize how far we are down the road to a cure.

In fact, most people don’t understand why such studies are done and – more to the point – why Telocyte is doing one. Just to clarify: we’re not doing an animal study to prove efficacy. We already know it’s effective in animals.

The reason we do an animal study is because the FDA, quite reasonably, requires an animal safety study in order to assess risks and side effects. Most people assume that animal studies are done to show that a potential therapy works in animals, so that it might work in humans as well. In fact, however, once you have shown that a therapy works in animals, as we have already, then before you can go on to human trials, you first need to do an animal safety study.

Animal studies are done to assess safety, not to assess efficacy.

For an initial human trial, the main question for the FDA isn’t efficacy, but safety. Sensibly, the FDA requires that the safety data be done carefully and credibly, to meet their careful standards. We know telomerase gene therapy works, but we still need to prove (to the FDA’s satisfaction) that telomerase gene therapy is safe enough to justify giving our therapy to human patients. So the question isn’t “Do we have a potential intervention for Alzheimer’s?” (which we do), but rather “Do we know what the risks are once we give it?” We’re fairly certain that we know those risk, but we need to document them rigorously.

In getting our therapy to human trials, you might say that there are three stages:

  1. Animal studies that show efficacy (already done by our collaborators).
  2. Animal studies that show safety (an FDA requirement).
  3. Human trials before release for general use (an FDA requirement).

Telocyte already has good data on the first stage: we know that telomerase is remarkably effective in reversing the behavioral decline seen in aging animals and that the same result will likely occur in aging human patients. In short, we are already confident that we can prevent and at least partially reverse Alzheimer’s disease. The FDA doesn’t need us to demonstrate efficacy: we already have good data on efficacy. What the FDA wants from us is more (and more detailed) data on the probable safety, which we’re about to provide.

While we are now ready to start on the FDA animal safety trial. Doing our FDA animal study isn’t a way of showing that telomerase gene therapy works – which is already clear from animal studies – but a detailed look at side effects, preparatory to our having permission to begin human trials next year.

Telomerase therapy works.

January 17, 2017

Intuition and Air Planes

The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.

— Albert Einstein, 1938

 

Most “advances” are purely incremental. We make minor advances in current techniques or technology, we marginally improve our existing surgery or drugs, or we precisely define the specifications of previously known molecules. Rarely do we develop a novel technology, an unprecedented therapy, or a distinctively new theory. Truly innovative, unexpected, and compelling changes require that – as Einstein said – we “regard old problems from a new angle.” Genuine advances in science don’t require experimental skill, they require conceptual creativity.

Advances require us to look at things in an entirely new way.

Our ability to cure age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, does not depend on incremental improvements, but on exactly such changes in how we look at things. The same, it turns out, is true of aging and – oddly enough – telomeres. We automatically view the world through our preconceptions, and this has always been true. Upon seeing the world’s first automobile, and unable to grasp the idea of a “horseless carriage”, we asked where the horse was attached. Upon seeing the world’s first television, and unable to grasp the idea of an electron tube, we asked how tiny people fit into that television cabinet. We continually look at new things, but we see them using old eyes.

As an analogy, imagine a group of castaways who have spend years trapped on a large, unexplored, tropical island. Two of the castaways are exploring an unfamiliar beach, when they come upon a large, entirely unexpected, and unfamiliar object. The first castaway, a bright academic, carefully measures the dimensions of every single part of the object. She tells the rest of the castaways about her measurements and they present her with an award for her hard work. To some acclaim, she explains that the unknown object might actually prove useful: the castaways could use it to 1) hang up their laundry, 2) provide shade from the hot tropical sun, and, 3) offer shelter during tropical storms. The second castaway has a more intuitive and creative bent. He carefully looks over the object, announces that it’s a plane, and offers to fly it off the island and save their lives.

Small Jet Plane

Sometimes, it’s not the measurements, it’s the ability to see new possibilities.

In the case of aging and age-related diseases, the odd thing is that most people don’t see how anything can be done. They still want to hang their laundry on the wings of the plane, without realizing that the airplane can fly them to safety. At best, they concede that aging might be slowed down, perhaps with diet, exercise, stress management, and other behavioral changes. The idea that aging can be reversed, or that age-related diseases can be cured, is anathema to their thinking, despite the solid evidence in cells, tissues, and animal studies. I first described the potential of telomeres for clinical therapy 20 years ago and the evidence has been growing steadily since then, yet the general public, the media, and many academics still think of telomeres as a place to hang laundry, provide shade, and offer shelter from the rain. Is it really that hard to recognize a plane? Apparently so.

It would appear that the only way to show people what telomeres can do is to fly the plane and safe lives.

 

December 29, 2016

The Ethics of Gene Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

The Ethics of Telomerase Treatment

 

The rationale behind telomerase therapy was first published in the medical literature two decades ago1 and has been updated and supported in academic textbooks2 and a more recent book for the public3 as well. The theoretical basis was cogent, even twenty years ago, and evidence has continued to support the hypothesis since then, in human cells, in human tissues, in informal human trials, and in formal animal trials. The potential implications of telomerase interventions in human age-related disease are unprecedented, well-supported, consistent, and feasible. The surprise is not that this approach is practical, but that it has taken so long to get telomerase therapy into clinical trials.

The reasons for the delay are complex and subtle, but are part of human nature.

For one thing, the clinical use of telomerase requires a novel and more sophisticated understanding of the aging process itself – at the genetic and epigenetic level – than has been the case until recently. Whenever a new scientific paradigm comes into play – whether a geocentric solar system, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, or anything else – it takes time for us to outgrow previous, less accurate models and to accept a more complex, but more accurate understanding of reality. Reality is not a democracy and a consensus is no guarantee of truth.

Putting it bluntly: old theories never die, their proponents do.

A second problem is credibility. In the case of telomerase clinical trials, there have been a number of cases in which individuals or companies (impatient with the regulatory delays so common in modern drug development) have attempted “end runs” of social and regulatory acceptance. Unfortunately (and perhaps unfairly), these off-shore human trials are often judged as lacking credibility and this can also undercut the credibility of other attempts. If a company evades the FDA (or the accepted regulatory agencies in other countries, such as the EMA or CFDA) and runs small off shore trials their results are not only specifically disbelieved, but result in general disbelief, even of serious biotech endeavors that DO attempt to meet FDA requirements. Moreover, the companies that attempt “end runs” often seek publicity and the outcome can be a perception that while there is significant publicity, that’s all there is. Unfairly or accurately, the academic judgement becomes one of “incredible claims, but no credible data”. Fair or unfair, just or unjust, such is human nature and such is the nature of clinical research in today’s world.

A third problem is a general misunderstanding of the role of telomerase in cancer. Telomerase never causes cancer, although small amounts can be necessary to permit cancer. More striking, however, is the role of telomerase in genomic stability: telomerase upregulates DNA repair, drastically lowering the risk of cancer. Dividing cells – including cancer cells – require at least minimal telomerase, yet a significant presence of telomerase (and sufficiently long telomeres) is protective against cancer. Some have even suggested that cancer is a disease of the young, and attribute it to the presence of telomerase, but the clinical reality is that cancer increases exponentially with age and that this increase is directly attributable to the down-regulation of DNA repair due to telomere shortening. In short, telomerase can be used to prevent cancer.

A fourth problem is a naïve conception of the pathology that underlies Alzheimer’s disease (and other age-related diseases). Citing data on mice, genetically altered to express a human amyloid protein, they extrapolate the results to human Alzheimer’s patients without appreciating the complex cascade of pathology that actually occurs in humans, let alone the differences between mice and human patients.

Finally, some people argue with the ethics of treating Alzheimer’s disease in clinical trials at all, let alone by using gene therapy. One wonders whether they have ever spend a year or two watching a loved one slide down into the abyss. I have known hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Alzheimer’s patients and their family members. Almost without exception, most would do literally anything, try literally anything in an effort to find a cure. The pity of AD is that it is 100% fatal and there is NO effective therapy – at the moment. While few of us would risk an experimental gene therapy (even one as promising at telomerase) to treat wrinkles or osteoporosis (particularly since neither one is fatal), all of us would consider such therapy to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It is scarcely surprising that scarcely a day goes by without someone contacting me, asking about potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. These are not people who live in ivory towers, these are not people with a “degree in microbiology”, these are people who are deeply and personally affected by the tragedy.

They’ve BEEN there. They UNDERSTAND.

One critic of gene therapy noted that: “there are 7 patients killed by gene therapy clinical trials” (over the past 20 years). Compare this with the seven hundred thousand Alzheimer’s patients who died in 2016 alone of not having had gene therapy. Why would I choose to be one of 700,000 deaths per year?

For those of us who have spent decades treating dying patients, for those of us who have Alzheimer’s disease, and for those of us who are terrified by what is happening to those we love who have Alzheimer’s disease, the ethics of using gene therapy to try curing the most frightening disease on earth are clear enough.

The ethical weight lies on the side of compassion.

 

 

  1. Fossel: Reversing Human Aging (1996) . Banks and Fossel: Telomeres, cancer, and aging – Altering the human lifespan (JAMA, 1997). Fossel: Telomerase and the aging cell – Implications for human health (JAMA, 1998).
  2. Fossel: Cells, Aging, and Human Disease (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  3. Fossel: The Telomerase Revolution (BenBella Press, 2015).
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