Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

February 20, 2018

Aging and Disease: 1.3 – Aging, What it IS

What IS aging?

An explanation of aging must account for all cells, all organisms, and – if we are candid – all of biology and isn’t merely entropy. Prior posts defined our boundaries: what we must include – and exclude. We know that we cannot simply point to entropy, wash our hands of any further discussion, and walk away with our eyes closed. Likewise, an honest explanation can’t simply consider humans and a few common mammals but ignore the entire gamut of Earth’s biology.

So, what IS aging? As a start, we might acknowledge that life has been on Earth for more than four billion years and during that entire time, life has resisted entropy. This serves as an excellent starting point: life might be defined as the ability to maintain itself in the face of entropy. In that case, we might rough out our initial definition: aging is the gradual failure of maintenance in the face of entropy.

We miss the point, however, unless we realize that aging is an active, dynamic process. Aging is not simply a matter of a failure of maintenance in the passive sense. To use an analogy, if entropy were an escalator carrying us downwards, then it is not the only process involved. It is countered by cell maintenance, which is precisely like walking upwards on the same escalator (see Figure 1.3a). Young cells are entirely capable, as are germ cells and many other cells, of indefinitely maintaining their position at the top of the escalator. Entropy and maintenance are equally balanced. Older cells, however, have a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) imbalance, in which maintenance is less than entropy.

As aging occurs, the problem is not that the escalator (entropy) carries us downwards, but that we are no longer walking upwards (maintenance) at the same rate as the escalator. To view aging as the descending escalator alone is to miss the essential point of biology: life remains on this planet because cells and organisms “walk upwards” and maintain themselves indefinitely in the face of being “carried downwards” by entropy. The process is a dynamic balancing act. To explain aging, it is not enough to cite the escalator, but requires that we explain why maintenance fails, and then only in certain cells and at certain times, while remaining functional in other cells and at other times. Aging is far from universal. A valid explanation of aging must account for why aging occurs in some cases yet does not occur in other cases.

 

Aging is not the escalator but is a combination of two forces: entropy carrying cells into dysfunction and maintenance ensuring that cells remain functional. Aging occurs only when maintenance is down-regulated. If maintenance is not down-regulated, then the cells and the organism do not age. Aging cells, such as many somatic cells, age because they down-regulate maintenance. “Immortal” cells, such as germ cells, do no age because they do not down-regulate maintenance.

We might try an analogy to see where it takes us, comparing biological aging to “aging” in a car. We could say that aging in a car is not simply what happens as the car undergoes weathering and degradation over time. Rather, car aging would be what happens if we fail to maintain the car on a regular and detailed basis. There are exceptional antique cars that have been in active use longer than most human lifetimes, but they are in excellent shape not because they had better parts (i.e., have the right genes) or were made by a better manufacturer (i.e., are part of the right species), but because they were maintained scrupulously and carefully on an almost daily basis by generations of owners. Such cars are oiled, painted, repaired, realigned, and cared for on an almost daily basis, compared to most cars that are lucky to be cared for annually. The critical difference is not the chronological age of the car nor the amount of wear-and-tear, but the frequency and excellence of their maintenance. Given frequent and excellent maintenance, sufficient to keep up with entropy, a car can last indefinitely, while with sloppy and merely annual maintenance, cars typically last only a few years before “aging” takes them off the road.

In a sense, organisms are no different: the degree of aging is not just a matter of time or entropy, but of the quality and frequency of maintenance. Likewise, aging is not purely a matter of which genes or what species pertain to that organism. Rather, aging is a matter of the rate of repair and recycling within cells, that is, maintenance in the face of entropy.
It’s not the genes, it’s the gene expression.

Let’s use another example, that of water recycling. Every molecule of water that you ingest has been recycled endlessly, but the speed and efficiency of that recycling determines the quantity and quality of the water you drink. Imagine that we plan a trip to Mars. If the average astronaut needs 2 liters per day and 4 astronauts are on a 2.5-year roundtrip to Mars, we might calculate that we need to bring 7 tons of water. But that (incorrectly) assumes no recycling. We can get by on a lot less water, depending on how we recycle. The amount we need to bring with us depends not only on the amount the astronauts use daily, but on the quality and rate of recycling (from urine, for example). The faster the recycling, the less water we need to carry along. The better the quality of our recycling, the longer we can stay healthy.

In a “young” and efficient cell, we recycle molecular pools rapidly and effectively. In an old cell, however, the rate and effectiveness of the recycling decreases. The analogy for our Mars trip would be slower recycling, along with an increasing percent of contaminants that are not being removed in our water recycling unit. The outcome, whether in aging cells or a mission to Mars, is gradually increasing dysfunction. Aging cells no longer function normally (as when they were young cells) and our sickening astronauts no longer function normally either (as when they started out on Earth).
As another example, you oversee a huge office building with multiple daily customers and hundreds of employees. Every night, your cleaning crew comes through, mopping the solid floors, vacuuming the carpets, cleaning the windows, and (when necessary) repainting the walls. Maintenance is frequent and excellent; as a result, the building always looks new (i.e., young). Now let’s radically cut back on your maintenance budget. Instead of daily maintenance, the carpets are vacuumed once every two weeks, the floors are mopped once a month, the windows are cleaned once a year, and repainting occurs once a decade. The resulting problem is not due to the amount of dirt (the entropy), nor the quality of the vacuum, the mop, the washer fluids, or the paint (think of these as the quality of your genes). The problem isn’t the dirt nor is it the cleaning crew, but the rate of maintenance. The outcome is that your building looks dirty and is increasingly incapable of attracting clients or customers – or for that matter, incapable of retaining employees. This parallels the changes in aging cells: the genes (the cleaning products) are excellent and the quality of repair (the cleaning staff) are both excellent, but the frequency of maintenance is too low to maintain the quality of the building. In aging cells, molecular turnover is too slow to keep up with entropic change.

This same analogy could be applied to home repairs, garden weeding, or professional education. The problem is not entropy, but our ability to resist entropy and maintain function. Aging occurs because cell maintenance becomes slower. The quality of gene expression is fine, but molecular turnover (see figure 1.3b) – the “recycling rate” – declines. This effect is subtle but pervasive and the result is increasing dysfunction. This concept – the failure of maintenance to keep up with entropy — is not only central to aging but can account for all of aging and in all organisms, whether at the genetic level, the cellular level, the tissue level, or the clinical outcome – age-related disease.

Aging is a dynamic process, in which entropy begins to gain as maintenance processes become gradually down-regulated.

In subsequent posts, we will explore the detailed mathematics of this change, reviewing the formula and the primary variables, letting us see the remarkable results that occur in terms of denatured molecules and cellular dysfunction. For now, however, let’s look at a few specific clinical examples in human aging, all of which we’ll return to in later posts, when we consider age-related diseases in great detail.

In human skin, between cells, we see changes in collagen and elastin (among dozens of other proteins) as we age. Many people mistakenly assume that these changes are a simple, static accumulation of damage over a lifetime, but these changes are anything but static. These molecules are in dynamic equilibrium, in which the molecules (and their complex structures) are constantly being produced (anabolism) and broken down (catabolism). The overall rate of recycling (the overall metabolism) is high in young skin, with the result that at any given time, most molecules are undamaged and functional (and relatively new). This rate slows with aging, however, with the result that molecules remain longer before being “recycled” and the percentage of damaged and dysfunctional molecules rises, slowly but inexorably. In old skin, molecules “sit around” too long before being recycled. Old skin isn’t old because of damage, but because the rate of maintenance becomes slower and slower. Naïve cosmetic attempts to “replace” skin collagen, elastin, moisture, or other molecules fail because they are transient interventions. By analogy, these cosmetic interventions would be like – in the case of our old, dirty office building – suggesting that we will send in one person, one night, to clean one window pane. Even if you notice a small, transient improvement, the problem isn’t resolved by bringing in one person for a single visit, it requires that we resume having the entire cleaning crew come in every night. Intervening in skin aging is not a matter of providing a few molecules, but of increasing the rate of turnover of all the molecules.

The same problem occurs in aging bones. The problem that lies at the heart of osteoporosis is not “low calcium”, but the rate at which we turnover our bony matrix. Looking solely at calcium as one example, osteoporosis not a static problem (add calcium), but a dynamic problem (increase the rate of calcium turnover). Moving our attention from minerals to cells, young bone is constantly being taken apart (by osteoclasts) and rebuilt (by osteoblasts). The result is continual remodeling (recycling) and repair. Bone turnover is a continual process that slows with age. Young fractures heal quickly and thoroughly. In old bone, however, the rate of remodeling falls steadily, and rebuilding falls slightly behind. The result is that we have decreased matrix, decreased mineralization, decreased bone mass, and an increasing risk of fractures. The fundamental problem underlying osteoporosis is not “a loss of bone mineral density”, but an inability to maintain bony replacement. It’s not the calcium or the phosphorous, but the osteocytes themselves. Loss of bone mineralization is a symptom, not the cause of osteoporosis.

A more tragic and more fatal example is Alzheimer’s disease. Until relatively recently, the leading pathological target was beta amyloid, a molecule which (like tau proteins and other candidates) shows increasing damage and denaturation (plaques in the case of amyloid) in older patients, especially in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Again, however, amyloid is not a static molecule that is produced, sits around, and slowly denatures over a lifetime. Amyloid is continually produced and continually broken down, but the rate of recycling falls as we age. The result is that the percentage of damaged amyloid (plaque) rises with age, solely because the rate of turnover is slowing down. As we will see, the cells that bind, internalize, and breakdown this molecule become slower as we age. To address Alzheimer’s, we don’t need to remove amyloid or prevent its production, we need to increase the rate of turnover. Beta amyloid plaques are a symptom, not the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Wherever we look — an aging cell, an aging tissue, or an aging organism – we see that aging is not a static, linear loss of function due to entropy. Rather, aging is a dynamic process in which the rate of recycling – whether of intracellular enzymes, extracellular proteins, aging cells, or aging tissues – becomes slower as cells senesce. Aging is a programmed failure of maintenance at all biological levels. This is equally true of DNA repair, mitochondrial function, lipid membranes, proteins, and everything else we can measure in an aging system.

We’ve had a glimpse at the core of aging. Let’s explore an overview of how changes in gene expression translate into cell dysfunction, tissue failure, clinical disease, and aging itself.

Next time: Aging, the Overview

February 13, 2018

Aging and Disease: 1.2 – Aging, What We Have to Explain

Our understanding is limited by our vision.

If we look locally, our understanding is merely local; if we look globally, our understanding becomes more global; and if we look at our entire universe, then our understanding will be universal. When we attempt to understand our world, we often start with what we know best: our own, local, provincial view of the world around us, and this limits our understanding, particularly of the wider world beyond our local horizon.

Trying to explain the shape of our world, I look at the ground around me and – perhaps not surprisingly – conclude that the world is probably flat. After all, it looks flat locally. Trying to understand the heavens, I look up at the sky around me and – perhaps not surprisingly – conclude that the sun circles the earth. After all, the sun appears to circle over me locally. Trying to understand our physical reality, I look at everyday objects and – perhaps not surprisingly – conclude that “classical physics” accounts for my universe. After all, classical physics accounts for typical objects that are around me locally. As long as we merely look around, look up, and look at quotidian objects, these explanations appear sufficient.

But it is only when we look beyond our purely local neighborhood – when we move beyond our provincial viewpoint, when we give up our simple preconceptions – that can we begin to understand reality. Taking a broader view, we discover that the Earth is round, that the sun is the center of our local star system, and that quantum and relativity physics are a minimum starting point in trying to account for our physical universe.

To truly understand requires that we step back from our parochial, day-to-day, common way of seeing world and open our minds to a much wider view of reality. We need to look at the broader view, the larger universe, the unexpected, the uncommon, or in the case of modern physics, the extremely small and the extremely fast. Time, mass, energy, and other concepts may become oddly elusive and surprisingly complicated, but our new understanding, once achieved, is a lot closer to reality than the simple ideas we get from restricting our vision to the mere commonplace of Newtonian physics. This is true of for branch of science, and for human knowledge generally.

The wider we cast our intellectual nets, the more accurately we understand our world.

To understand aging demands a wide net. If our knowledge of aging is restricted to watching our friends and neighbors age, then our resulting view of aging is necessarily naïve and charmingly unrealistic. If we expand our horizons slightly, to include dogs, cats, livestock, and other mammals, then we have a marginally better view of aging. But even if we realize that different species age at different rates, our understanding is only marginally less naive. To truly understand aging, we need to look at all of biology. We need to look at all species (not just common mammals), all diseases (e.g., the progerias and age-related diseases in all animals), all types of organisms (e.g., multicellular and unicellular organims, since some multicellular organisms don’t age and some unicellular organisms do age), all types of cell within organisms (since somatic cells age, germ cells don’t, and stem cells appear to lie in between the two extremes), and all the cellular components of cells. In short, to understand aging – both what aging is and what aging isn’t – we need to look at all life, all cells, and all biological processes.

Only then, can we begin understand aging.

To open our minds and examine the entire spectrum of aging – so that we can begin to understand what aging is and how to frame a consistent concept of “aging” in the first place – let’s contrast the small sample we would examine in the narrowest, common view of aging with the huge set of biological phenomena we must examine if we want to gain comprehensive and accurate view of aging, a view that allows us to truly understand aging.

The narrow view, the most common stance in considering aging, examines aging as we encounter it in normal humans (such as people we know or people we see in the media) and in normal animals (generally pets, such as dogs and cats, and for some people, domesticated animals, such as horses, cattle, pigs, goats, etc.). This narrow view leaves out almost all species found on our planet. This sample is insufficient to make any accurate statements about the aging process, with the result that most people believe that “everything ages”, “aging is just wear and tear”, and “nothing can be done about aging”. Given the narrow set of data, none of these conclusions are surpring, but then it’s equally unsurprising that all of these conclusion are mistaken.

A broad view has a lot more to take into consideration (see Figure 1), which is (admittedly) an awful lot of work. The categories that we need to include may help us see how broad an accurate and comprehensive view has to be. We need to examine and compare aging:

  1. Among all different organisms,
  2. Within each type of organism,
  3. Among all different cell types, and
  4. Within each type of cell.

 

Lets look at these categories in a bit more detail.

When we look at different organisms, we can’t stop at humans (or even just mammals). We have to account for aging (and non-aging) in all multicellular organisms, including plants, lobsters, hydra, naked rats, bats, and everything else. And not only do we need to look at all multicellular organisms, we also need to account for aging (and non-aging) in all unicellular organisms, including bacteria, yeast, amoebae, and everything else. In short, we need to consider every species.

When we look within organisms, we need to account for all age-related diseases (and any lack of age-related diseases or age-related changes) within organisms. Diseases will include all human (a species that is only one tiny example, but that happens to be dear to all of us) age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and all the other CNS age-related diseases, arterial aging (including coronary artery disease, strokes, aneurysms, peripheral vascular disease, cogestive heart failure, etc.), ostoarthritis, osteoporosis, immune system aging, skin aging, renal aging, etc. But we can’t stop there by any means. In addition to age-related diseases within an organism, we need to look at aging changes (and non-aging) whether they are seen as diseaeses or not, for example graying hair, wrinkles, endocrine changes, myastenia, and hundreds of other systemic changes in the aging organism.

When we look at different cells, we need to account for the fact that some cells (e.g., the germ cell lines, including ova and sperm) within multicellular organisms don’t age, while other cells in those same organims (e.g., most somatic cells) do age, and some cells (e.g., stem cells) appear to be intermediate between germ and somatic cells in their aging changes.

When we look within cells, we need to account for a wild assortment of age-related changes in the cells that age, while accounting for the fact that other cells may show no such changes, even in the same species and the same organism. In cells that age – cells that senesce – we need to account for telomere shortening, changes in gene expression, methylation (and other epigenetic changes), a decline in DNA repair (including all four “families” of repair enzymes), mitochondrial changes (including the efficacy of aerobic metabolism enzymes deriving from the nucleus, leakier mitochondrial lipid membranes, increases in ROS production per unit of ATP, etc.), decreased turnover of proteins (enzymatic, structural, and other proteins), decreased turnover of other intracellular and extracellular molecules (lipids, sugars, proteins, and mixed types of molecules, such as glycoproteins, etc.), increased accumulation of denatured molecules, etc. The list is almost innumerable and still growing annually.

If we are truly to understand aging, we cannot look merely at aging humans and a few aging mammals, then close our minds and wave our hands about “wear and tear”. If we are to understand aging accurately and with sophistication, then we must not only look at a broader picture, but the entire picture. In short, to understand aging, we must stand back all the way in both time and space, and look at all of biology.

To understand aging, we must understand life.

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 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.

 

October 4, 2017

The End Hangs on the Beginning

A major stumbling block in our understanding of age-related disease, such as Alzheimer’s, is a propensity to focus on large numbers of genes, proteins, etc., without asking what lies “upstream” that results in the associations between such genes (etc.) and the disease. While some would tout the advantages of using Artificial Intelligence to attack the problem, the problem with AI is that (like most scientists) it focuses on finding solutions only once the problem has been defined ahead of time. If, for example, we define Alzheimer’s as a genetic disease, then we will find genes, but will never reassess our unexamined assumption that AD is genetic. If we assume that it’s genetic, then we only look at genes. If we assume it’s due to proteins, then we only look at proteins. If we assume that it’s environmental, then we only look at the environment. Data analysis and AI, no matter how powerful, is limited by our assumptions. We tend to use large data analysis (and AI) in the same mode: without ever realizing we have narrowed our search, we assume that a disease is genetic and then accumulate and analyze huge amounts of data on gene associations. While AI can do this more efficiently than human scientists, the answers will always remain futile if we have the wrong question. Once we make assumptions as to the cause, we only look where our assumptions direct us. If we look in the wrong place, then money and effort won’t correct our unexamined assumptions and certainly won’t result in cures.

It’s like asking “which demons caused plague in Europe in the middle ages”? If we assume that the plague was caused by demons, then we will never (no matter how hard-working the researcher, how large the data set we crunch, or how powerful the AI we use) discover that the plague was caused by a bacteria (Yersinia pestis). If you look for demons, you don’t find bacteria. If you look for genes, you don’t find senescent changes in gene expression. The ability to find answers is not merely limited by how hard we work or how large the data sample, but severely and unavoidably limited by how we phrase our questions. We will never get anywhere if we start off in the wrong direction.

To quote the Latin phrase, “Finis origine pendet“. The end hangs on the beginning.

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.

 

November 22, 2016

Teaching Cells to Fish

Aging is the slowing down of active molecular turnover, not the passive accumulation of damage. Damage certainly accumulates, but only because turnover is no longer keeping up with that damage.

It’s much like asking why one car falls apart, when another car looks like it just came out of the showroom. It’s not so much a matter of damage (although if you live up north and the road salt eats away at your undercarriage, that’s another matter), as it is a matter of how well a car is cared for. I’ve see an 80-year-old Duesenberg that looks a lot better than my 4-year-old SUV. It’s not how well either car was made, nor how long either car has been around, but how well each car was cared for. If I don’t care for my SUV, my SUV rusts; if a car collector gives weekly (even daily) care to a Duesenberg, then that Duesenberg may well last forever.

The parallel is apt. The reason that “old cells” fall apart isn’t that they’ve been around a long time, nor even that they are continually being exposed to various insults. The reason “old cells” fall apart is that their maintenance functions slow noticeably and that maintenance fails to keep up with the quotidian damage occurring within living cells. If we look at knees, for example, the reason that our chondrocytes fail isn’t a matter of how many years you’ve been on the planet, nor even a matter of how many miles a day you spend walking around. The reason chondrocytes fail is because their maintenance functions slow down and stop keeping up with the daily damage. As it turns out, that deceleration in maintenance occurs because of changes in gene expression, which occur because telomeres shorten, which occur because cells divide. And, not at all surprisingly, the number of those cell divisions is related to how long you’ve been on the planet (how old you are) and how many miles you walk (or if you play basketball). In short, osteoarthritis is distantly related to your age and to the “mileage” you incur, but not directly so. The problem is not really the age nor is it the mileage; the problem is the failure to repair the routine damage and THAT failure is directly controlled by changes in gene expression.

So what?

The telomeres and gene expression may play a central role, but if your age and the “mileage” is distantly causing all those changes in cell division, telomere lengths, gene expression, and failing cell maintenance, then what’s the difference? Why bother with all the complexity? Why not accept that age and your “mileage” are the cause of aging diseases and stop fussing? Why not simply accept age-related disease?

Because we can change it.

The question isn’t “why does this happen?” so much as “what can we do about it?” We can’t change your age and it’s hard to avoid a certain amount of “mileage” in your daily life, but we CAN change telomeres, gene expression, and cell maintenance. In fact, we can reset the entire process and end up with cells that keep up with damage, just as your cells did when you were younger.

Until now, everyone who has tried to deal with only the damage (or the damaged cells) failed because they focused on damage rather than focusing on repair. For example, if you focus only on cell damage (as most big pharma and biotech companies do when they go after beta amyloid or tau proteins in trying to cure Alzheimer’s disease), then any clinical effect is transient and the disease continues to progress – which is why companies like Eli Lily, Biogen, TauRx, and dozens of other companies are frustrated. And small wonder. Or if you focus only on the damaged cells (and try removing them), then the clinical effect is not only transient, but will end up accelerating deterioration (as discussed in last week’s blog, see figure below) – which is why companies like Unity will be frustrated. Their approaches fail not because they don’t address the damage, but because they fail to understand the deceleration of dynamic cell maintenance that occurs with age – and fail to understand the most effective single clinical target. The key target is not damage, nor damaged cells, but the changes in gene expression that permit that damage, and those damaged cells, to lead to pathology. We can’t cure Alzheimer’s or osteoarthritis by removing senescent cells, but we can cure them by resetting those same cells.

Why you shouldn't kill senescent cells.

Why you shouldn’t kill senescent cells.

In the cases of removing senescent cells (an approach Unity advocates), wouldn’t it be better to remove the damaged cells and then reset the telomeres of those that remain? But why remove the damaged cells if you can reset them as well, with the result that they can now deal with the damage and remove it – as well as young cells do?

Why remove senescent cells at all?

While you could first remove senescent cells, then add telomerase so that the remaining cells could divide without significant degradation of function, why would you bother? You could much more easily, more simply, and more effectively treat all the cells in an aging tissue, reset their aging process and have no need to ever remove senescent cells in the first place. Instead of removing them, you simply turn them into “younger” and more functional cells. For an analogy, imagine that we have a therapy that could turn cancer cells into normal cells. If that were true, why would anyone first surgically remove a tumor? If you could really “reset” cancer cells into normal cells, there would be no need to do a surgical removal in the first place. While there is no such therapy for cancer cells, the analogy is still useful. Removing senescent cells is not only counter-productive, but (if we reset gene expression) entirely unnecessary.

Removal is unnecessary (both as to cost and pathology), risky, and medically contraindicated. You’d be performing a completely unnecessary procedure when a more cost-effective and reliable procedure was available. It would be exactly like removing your tonsils if you already had overwhelming data showing that an antibiotic was reliable, cheap, and without risk.

A cell with full telomere lengths – regardless of prior history – is already superior. The accumulated damage is not a static phenomenon, but a dynamic one. Reset cells can clean up damage. This is not merely theory, but supported well in fact, based on both human cells and whole animal studies. We shouldn’t think of damage as something that merely accumulates passively. All molecules are continually being recycled. The reason some molecular pools show increased damage isn’t because molecules denature, but because the rate of turnover slows, thereby allowing denatured molecules (damage) to increase within the pool.

Try this analogy: we have two buildings. One is run by a company that invests heavily in maintenance costs, the other is run by a company that cut its maintenance budget by 50%. The first building is clean and well-kept, the second building is dirty and poorly-kept. Would you rather raze the second building and then rebuild it or would you rather increase the maintenance budget back to a full maintenance schedule and end up with a clean building? This is precisely the case with young versus old cells: the problem is not the dirt that accumulates, the problem is that no one is paying for routine maintenance. There are cells that are “too senescent” to save, but almost all the cells in human age-related disease can be reset with good clinical outcome. There is no reason to remove senescent cells any more than (in the case of a dirty building), we need to send in the dynamite and bulldozers.

Too often, we try to approach the damage rather than looking at the longer view. Instead of addressing the process, we address the outcome. It’s like the problem that often occurs in global philanthropy, where we see famine and think we can solve the problem with food alone. While the approach is necessary – as a stopgap – many are surprised to find that simply providing free food for one year, results in bankrupt farmers and recurrent famines in the following years. Or we provide free medical care in a poor nation, then wonder why there is a dearth of medical practitioners in years to come, without realizing we have put them out of business and accidentally encouraged them to emigrate to someplace they can make a living and feed their families. We intend well, but we perpetuate the problem we are desperately trying to solve. Treating famine or medical problems, like treating the fundamental causes of age-related disease, is not simple and cannot be effectively addressed with band aids and superficial interventions, such as addressing damage alone or removing senescent cells. Effective clinical intervention – like effective interventions in famine or global healthcare – require a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of cell function, an understanding of the dynamic changes that underlie age-related pathology.

An adage (variously attributed to dozens of sources) about fish and fishing provides a useful analogy here:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

If we want to intervene effectively in age-related diseases – whether Alzheimer’s, osteoarthritis, or myriad other problems of aging – we shouldn’t throw fish at medical problems.

We should teach our cells to fish.

 

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