Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

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.

 

November 15, 2016

Close to a Cure

We are now within two years of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

What a brash and disruptive claim! What hubris! Yet events are coming together, underlining a new and far more complete understanding of the disease, illuminating the cause, supporting the ability to intervene, safely and effectively. We finally see a way to intervene in the basic pathology, underlining the potential to both prevent and cure Alzheimer’s disease.

But why has it taken so long? Why was Alzheimer’s disease first defined 110 years ago, and yet remains totally beyond our ability to intervene even now? Why have all other approaches, whether those of big pharma or those of biotech, failed utterly? Why has not a single clinical trial shown any ability to change the progress of this frightening disease? Why is Alzheimer’s disease not only called “the disease that steals human souls”, but also called the “graveyard of companies”? Why has every single approach (which has at most shown only an effect on biomarkers, such as beta amyloid), still failed to show any change in the cognitive decline in patients with this disease? Why have we failed universally, until now?

Because every approach has concentrated on effects, not on causes.

Currently, most approaches target beta amyloid, many target tau proteins, and some target mitochondrial function, inflammation, free radicals, and other processes, but no one targets these problems as a single, unified, overarching process. Alzheimer’s isn’t caused by any one of these disparate processes, but by a broader, more complex process that results in every one of these individual problems. Beta amyloid isn’t a cause, but a biomarker. Equally, tau proteins, phosphodiesterase levels, APOE4, presenilins, and a host of other markers are effects, not causes. The actual cause lies upstream and constitutes the root cause of the dozens of separate effects that are the futile downstream targets of every current FDA trial aimed at Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding this, we will be targeting the “upstream” problem, rather than the dozens of processes that others target individually and without success. Our animal studies support the ability to effectively intervene in human disease: when we say that we are about to cure Alzheimer’s disease, we base claim that on a clear and consistent theoretical model, supported by equally clear and consistent data.

Within the next few months, we will begin our FDA toxicity study, preparatory to obtaining an IND that will permit us to begin our FDA human trial. Our toxicity study will take 6 months and will meet FDA requirements for human safety data. Our first human trial is planned to begin one year from now and is intended to show not only safety, but a clear efficacy. We will include a dozen human volunteers, each with (not just early, but) moderate Alzheimer’s disease and our human trial will last 6 months, including a single treatment and multiple measurements of behavior, laboratory tests, and brain scans. We expect to show unambiguous cognitive improvement within that six-month period. We are confident that we cannot merely slow, not merely stop, but reverse much of the cognitive decline in our twelve patients. We intend to demonstrate an ability to cure Alzheimer’s disease clearly and credibly.

Curing Alzheimer’s requires investments of money, time, and thought. The toxicity study costs 1 million dollars; the human trial costs 2.5 million dollars. Telocyte has half a million dollars committed to this effort and at least one group of investors with a firm interest in taking us all the way through the human trials. We are close and we grow closer each day.

After 110 years, we are about to cure Alzheimer’s.

November 8, 2016

Revolution in Medicine

Every pharmaceutical firm, every biotech company, every hospital, every clinic, and every conference makes revolutionary claims, albeit seldom with any logic or thought behind the claims. Every product is a “revolutionary” therapy, every surgery is a “revolutionary” procedure, and everyone has a “revolutionary” way of looking at clinical medicine. Reality is strikingly different. Despite claims to the contrary, almost all advances in medicine are accretionary, not revolutionary. About sixty percent of all FDA applications for “breakthrough” status are turned down for not being breakthroughs, but merely incremental advances (if that). Even granting a third of these applications is overly kind, but then breakthroughs, like revolutions, are remarkably rare. I am reminded of my years consulting for hospitals around the world, where I was entertained to find every hospital, in every town, in every country, bragging that they were ranked as “one of the best ten hospitals!” Sometimes, they bragged that they were THE best hospital. Somehow, it appears that thousands of hospitals are among the best ten hospitals and hundreds are THE best hospital. In the entire world or on that block?

It clearly depends on who’s counting and on who does the ranking.

Therapies are much the same: they are seldom “the best” (in the world?) and they are almost never revolutionary. To the contrary, almost all current therapy is based on incremental change: we find a slightly better statin, an antibiotic with slightly less resistance (at least this year), and a procedure with a slightly lower risk. We rank our interventions by statistical significance and we deal with percentage points in the adverse effect profile. Scarcely the stuff of revolution.

We can do better; much better. To do so, however, requires both an open mind and a very disciplined one. We need both creativity and intelligence to envision a path to revolutionary therapies. If we do so, we may be able to cure diseases that are thought to be “incurable”, a true revolution I both clinical thinking and clinical practice.

Many people, in a totally practical vein, think of diseases in three categories. The first includes those diseases that we have “cures” for, by means of vaccines, antibiotics, and routine surgeries (think of tetanus, cellulitis, and appendicitis). The second category includes diseases for which we have no cure yet, but for which we see a cure on the horizon (think of treating sickle cell anemia with gene therapy). This second category includes type 1 diabetes: while we use insulin to good effect, we eagerly imagine the days when we simply replace the missing cells in the pancreas and truly cure diabetes. While we have – or imagine that we may soon have – true cures for these diseases in both the first two categories, the third category brings a sense of futility. When it comes to age-related disease (think of Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, etc.), we are caught up by the assumption that while we can treat symptoms, use grafts or stents, lower the risk factors, or replace the damaged part (a total knee replacement comes to mind), we will never be able to entirely prevent or cure the underlying disease. After all, they’re simply the outcome of aging, yes? And who could possibly change the aging process?

Oddly enough, we already have.

We first showed we could reverse cell aging in 1999, followed by the reversal of tissue aging (in the laboratory) in the following few years. The question isn’t “can we reverse the aging process in human cells or tissues”, but “can we reverse the aging process in human patients”? Can we take someone with age-related disease, treat them, and reverse the disease reverse at the cellular and genetic levels? Can we prevent and cure age-related disease? Based on both theory and animal data, the answer is almost certainly to be “yes, we can”. All it requires is intelligence, a modicum of work, and a small commitment of funding.

Instead of treating Alzheimer’s as something to live with, we can treat it and have it be something we can live without. Only then we will have a true revolution.

November 1, 2016

Making Things Worse

Imagine a factory which is operating at capacity, with a thousand workers. Some of the workers are doing a great job, but some are ill and not working hard. In fact, they are actively interfering with those who are working hard. In this factory, you can’t hire anyone new, so you have two choices: you can fire the bad workers or you try to improve their health. If you simply fire the bad workers, you have increased the work load for those who remain. Not surprisingly, they begin to get tired and ill as well, so the factory ends up failing even faster and before you know it, everyone is out of a job. On the other hand, if you can improve the health (and the attitude) of the workers who are tired and ill, the factory can become a success.

The factory is human tissue; the workers are your cells.

Let’s look at an example, such as the cells in your knee. Over time, the chondrocytes divide, become gradually more senescent, and begin to fail. The result is osteoarthritis. If you have mild osteoarthritis, you might (naively) consider simply removing senescent cells. This reliefs some of the inflammation and removes the cells that aren’t doing a good job (the tired workers), but the result is that you’ve just asked all the remaining cells to take up the slack (increased the work load for the remaining factory workers). In order to replace the cells that you’ve removed, the remaining cells now have to divide, which accelerates their own senescent changes, and hastens the failure of the entire tissue. In the case of the knee joint, the osteoarthritis improves temporarily, but you’ve just accelerated osteoarthritic changes in the long run. Instead of a slow joint failure, you’ve ensured that it fails even faster.

Several people have, in a charming burst of innocence, recommended that we do just that. Instead of resetting senescent cells and restoring cell and tissue function, they want to remove senescent cells in older tissues. Their hope is understandable, but their understanding is simplistic. Studies show that you may see temporary improvement in inflammation and secretory profiles, but what about long term risks? The problem is that those who want to kill off senescent cells lack a full appreciation of the dynamic pathology and the cellular consequences. They offer a simplistic view, but biology is seldom simplistic.

Why you shouldn't kill senescent cells.

Why you shouldn’t kill senescent cells.

 

Consider the knee again. A common concern is that of chondrocyte senescence (leading to osteoarthritis) in professional basketball players. Because of repetitive high-impact trauma, they lose chondrocytes at an accelerated rate compared to people whose knees are not subject to traumatic cell loss. The remaining chondrocytes divide to replace the lost chondrocytes, accelerating telomere loss, and accelerating osteoarthritic changes. The clinical result is due to tissue failure at an early age.

Those who are trying to treat tissue senescence by selectively removing senescent cells (instead of resetting them to a normal pattern of gene expression) are causing a transient improvement in tissue function, coincident upon the removal of dysfunctional, senescent cells (temporarily decreasing inflammatory biomarkers, for example), but the longer-term result is to accelerate cell senescence in all remaining cells. The result is a transient hiatus in inflammation and other biomarkers of cell senescence, followed by a more rapid decline in cell and tissue function. In the case of OA, for example, the outcome is to relief symptoms temporarily, only to then ensure a more rapid failure of the joint.

Our analogy remains apt. If you have a group of workers in a factory, some of whom are suffering from fatigue and are no longer producing, you have two possible interventions. Intervention #1 might be to fire all the tired workers, but the long-term result is that you increase the workload and failure rate among the remaining workers. Intervention #2 would be to find a way to restore the energy and interest among those workers who are fatigued. The analogy is a loose one, but the outcomes are predictable. Removing the “tired” cells within a tissue will accelerate pathology. Resetting the “tired” cells within a tissue will resolve pathology.

If you want to cure age-related disease, the solution is not to kill senescent cells, but to reset their gene expression to that of young cells.

 

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