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.
- 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).
- Fossel: Cells, Aging, and Human Disease (Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Fossel: The Telomerase Revolution (BenBella Press, 2015).