Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

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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