Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

April 5, 2018

Aging and Disease: 2.2 – Cell Senescence, Telomeres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2018

Aging and Disease: An Index

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

0.1 Prologue

1.0 Aging, our purpose, our perspective

1.1 Aging, what is isn’t

1.2 Aging, what we have to explain

1.3 Aging, what it is

1.4 Aging, the overview

1.5 Aging, misconceptions

2.0 Cell senescence, perspective

2.1 Why cells divide

2.2 Telomeres

2.3 Changes in gene expression

2.4 Changes in molecular turnover

2.5 Changes in molecular turnover, most molecules

2.6 Changes in molecular turnover, DNA repair

2.7 Changes in molecular turnover, Mitochondria

2.8 Changes in molecular turnover, extra-cellular molecules

2.9 Cell senescence and tissue aging

3.0 Aging disease

3.1 Cancer

3.2 Direct and indirect aging

3.3 Skin

3.4 Immune system

3.5 Osteoarthritis

3.6 Osteoporosis

3.7 Arterial (vascular) disease

3.8 CNS disease

3.9 CNS: Parkinson’s disease

3.10 CNS: Alzheimer’s disease

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

4.1 What doesn’t work, killing senescent cells

4.2 What works, lowering risks

4.3 What works, resetting gene expression

5.0 Telomerase in the Clinic

March 15, 2018

Aging and Disease: 1.5 – Aging, Misconceptions

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

Straw man arguments

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

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

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

Straw man arguments do nothing but prevent progress.

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

Human pathology: which cells cause the disease?

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

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

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

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

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

Cell senescence, genes, and expression

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

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

Misguided approaches to measuring telomeres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does a cell age?

 

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

February 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.

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.

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