Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

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 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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