Meet the Woman experimenting anti-aging gene therapies (on herself)
This article is based on my Skype conversation with Elizabeth Parrish, founder and CEO of BioViva. BioViva is a biotech company in the Seattle area focused on developing gene therapies to mitigate the age-related diseases. Liz is currently testing these therapies on herself. Her research was recently covered in a MIT Technology Review article and she did an AMA on Reddit you may want to check out.
Gabriel Licina is the American biohacker who connected us with Elizabeth few weeks ago..
“Yes, I really like Gabriel and his group of people. They are smart and savvy! I am looking forward to hear his thoughts about what you are doing at Exosphere. I know he will be going down to Chile next month to be a mentor for your Hydra Startup Lab. From what I can tell, I really like what you guys are doing. I firmly believe the individual is what drives innovation. Companies generally start very innovative but then turn into business models, so your attention on the individual is key.”
Before the call I read about her story and her research. The first thing I was very curious about in order to understand the context of her work was the fact the first very experiment (started in September of this year) has a secret around where it exactly took place. It seems clear that it was a South American country and Colombia is just the best guess. Since we also decided to base Exosphere outside of the US and specifically in Latin America, I asked about the reasons for her choice.
Why didn’t you conduct your first experiment in the US instead of Latin America?
“We did it to be careful. As a company owner I probably could have performed my experiment in the US, but we wanted to make sure there were no issues with the staff that administered the therapeutics. We are keeping secret the exact location and staff that was there on site. We will keep it that way until next summer when I believe the documentary taken by the filming group will come out. At that point we hope to have some definitive results; data is king. So until we know that the results are good, obviously we want to protect those who had anything to do with it. It was definitely my choice. I feel it’s a human right to have the freedom to do with your body whatever you want; you should be allowed to pay a medical doctor to do it in the safest way possible.
In the US there are a lot of laws and regulation that obstruct access to therapeutics and experimental medicine, or what is considered experimental medicine… which I argue is in fact as safe as anything else considering that everything the FDA ever passed you are guaranteed to die taking, meaning that is not going to give you an indefinite lifespan. You are probably going to die from the disease while you are taking the pills because most of the FDA approved drugs are just ameliorating symptoms, meaning they are slowing down the progression of the disease but are not necessarily reversing or curing it.
Right now we are waiting for the first results, then we would like to move forward with investors before going into Mexico because we seem to have the most support there, then run a couple pre-clinical trials that are not too expensive, to see if each of these therapeutics work independently. I took 2 gene therapies, we want to split them in half back into their respective counterparts, use one to treat sarcopenia in people over 60 and see if it works on a small cohorts of between 5 to 10 people. The second one utilizes telomerase induction to, in theory, cure Alzheimer’s. If it could actually help patients by reversing the aging of the cells in the brain, and of course the by-product of that would be the disposal of beta-amyloid and the tau tangles, but what we are going for is to make useful cells in the brain and see if it will then function better…and it absolutely should.”
What is the kind of support you are getting and what kind of people are you looking for?
“Clinical trials. Mexico is good because is easy to bring American patients there, for people with Alzheimer’s is difficult to travel long distances.
On the other side, what we need in a country is investment dollars and infrastructure from the government, so some form of connection to the Ministry of Health, the ability to have a person on the government side to be an advocate for your company.
Mexico right now looks the brightest option because we have people interested helping us there. It’s a preferred location even for the biggest US pharmaceutical companies. Beyond that we need a country where people have access to consensual work, so if they want to take a therapeutic and they understand the risk we can ensure their safety.
The first friendly nation will become very very wealthy! (laughs), because we don’t even have to charge a lot. If we are sitting on cures for disease we want to bring the cost down so anyone can afford it, and have people flying into the country where they are allowed to get those treatments.”
You said data is king, and that you are waiting the next summer for results. So, what kind of data can you gather from your experiment in just 1 year?
“A lot. You can start with some basic observations: namely, if I don’t die and I don’t get cancer (laughs). But the data that is really king here is methylation to see if these cells actually behave more usefully: biological markers of both lengthening of telomeres, telomerase induction, appearance of tissues, the function of organs, insulin sensitivity, so we would be looking at MRI images to watch the muscle mass increase as it should (minimal effects are expected in 4 months, we are 2 months in now). Tissue elasticity is clearly important, we can take tissue samples and see if they are on par with more useful skin both in collagen production and methylation of the cells (cells acting younger).”
Would you please explain in a simple way the science behind your experiment?
“Let me tell you how we do it. It is difficult to build. We did not just put genes in by themselves. you could do that but in fact most of them would not take in your cell, so we use viral vectors. Viruses we know are really good at essentially getting us sick (laughs), but we use a virus that does not get us sick, and we use viruses because they have this ability to connect to your cell and put their genetic material in your cell. With gene therapy we get out their ability to get you sick, we take their gene out and put the human gene that we want them to insert your cell.
So they cannot get you sick, and they cannot make more viruses, but they can deliver a human gene to your nucleus. Then it starts making the protein that you need in order to be stronger and more youthful. In the future smarter, more visually acute, etc. So in a way is very simple science because we are not making molecules, having you eat them, and letting them go somewhere in your body and creating some off effect. What we are doing is just delivering the gene to your cell, which then produces the protein that will make you different. Your cell has chromosomes in it, and the ones that code all they do is make proteins and those proteins make your skin, hormones, everything else about you.”
The Two Therapies
The Myostatin Inhibitor
“We inject it into the muscles. Here is the deal: the myostatin inhibitor, the gene itself, makes a protein that comes out of your cells and is shared in the blood stream and it actually blocks myostatin, and myostatin inhibits muscle growth. It keeps your muscles from growing larger than they are and in fact sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass from age 30) kills 6% of the population. We block myostatin and therefore your muscles grow.
The benefit is not just larger muscles. It increases insulin sensitivity and decrease white fat, and assists with stem cells signaling. Many people die looking very old even if they have very healthy stem cells in their body that were just never signaled to turn on and start saving their bodies. So this we believe will be a multi-faceted approach to treating aging as a disease.”
“Telomerase inducers create an enzyme called telomerase; it elongates the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes and that elongation does many things. One thing is it protects the chromosome, makes it healthier, and appears to regulate p53, is a cancer causing gene we want to keep turned off. In animal studies telomerase induction reversed aging. There were two studies — De Pihno and MA Blasco — and in De Pinho study it was evident there was an effect not only on the visual appearance of the mice (certainly we want you to look young and fresh, but what we are really targeting in disease right?) but their appearance was more youthful all the way through in all of their organs.”
“Telomerase is a bit different than the inhibitor, because a gene goes in and the protein is made, but as far as we know is not shared outside of the cell, so you have to do a lot more of this gene therapy to target many more cells.
These two therapies together could work beautifully. For instance, if you turn telomerase on in stem cells you could have an unlimited number of stem cells that could divide, but if the stem cells do not signal to the rest of your body they are of no use. The myostatin inhibitor should prevent this from happening and thus work synergistically with the telomerase inducer.”
External resource: http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com/telomerase-as-a-fountain-of-youth/
How long do you expect humans to be able to live thanks to these therapies? Could we live forever or is there a hard line?
“It’s unknown. Our company is about mitigating age-related diseases. We do not talk a lot about radical life extension. We talk about trying to mitigate the diseases of aging because they are costly and inhumane. The minute we can, we need to do this.
We are treating biological aging because it’s at the root of those diseases. If your cells do not age and grow old, if they do not stop cleaning, we are successful. Our vision is for people to live until 120 years looking youthful all the way through, and therefore as healthier, happier and more productive parts of the workforce and life and the world.
Now, if you are healthy what do you die of? We don’t know. You could potentially go on for a very long time.”
How did you encounter the idea? And where did you find your partners?
“I did have some basics of biology and science in my background. But I actually got into this being a patient advocate trying to cure childhood diseases. I had a love for genetics and I ended up in a conference in Cambridge, UK, organized by the SENS Foundation. I went there because it was going to be vastly about genetics and while I was there I realized that in fact if we could get funding into that kind of science it was an area that could help everyone. Everyone had a reason to want to fund this science.
So I saw that these cures for aging actually could treat children with severe diseases and then if we actually started using very sick persons dying of old age we would have a massive number of people who could test these therapeutics to maybe even save their own life and also help children.
As soon as I left the conference I immediately started a company called BioTrove Investments to collect money for longevity research. I really thought it would be easy (laughs). I thought, everyone is gonna understand THIS, everyone has skin in the game, everyone is going to die for biological aging if they do not die in an accident or from childhood disease. We had some potential investors approach us who ultimately did not invest because they either did not like the business plan of one of the companies I was trying to sell or they wanted physical proof the science worked (in humans! in animals we already have proof). I thought I would have seriously be getting a burnout if I kept telling the same story and really what we needed is evidence. I am the kind of person who, if they see a problem, will try to fix it. BioViva was 2 more years in the making and I sorted out the most innovative persons, thinkers, and medical doctors who thought that it was the right thing to do. That’s how I created BioViva. It was to get human evidence and start saving life now.”
“From there we built BioViva and pinpointed the two therapies to start with. Then it really came down to the necessity for a human test. I had always said I would be that person, and even if as we grew the company a lot of people emailed us saying ‘I want to be the first test subject’, we did not know what would happen, so we thought our company had to take the first big risk.
We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it was a huge risk, we do not really see it as a risk. We think the odds are in our favor, in my favor, and that I can be the best witness for the company.”
How do you deal with those who are fighting against you, I imagine there are a lot of people telling you you have no credentials for doing this and you are a charlatan? And what about your family, how did they react to this? Are they supportive?
“Interestingly my dad is really proud of me. He is always been a bold and brave person and he was very congratulatory, he actually talk to me more now than ever before. He told me this is definitely the right thing to do. It was a fantastic feeling. He never questioned, it seemed obvious to him.
There are people always wanting to cause problem, because they want to put the focus on themselves. Take a look at Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or other business leaders; they did not have the degrees in what they did for their companies, so I quickly learned to laugh at critical articles. I was also helped by the people who emailed me to tell me not be bothered because my critics were just wrong, that this is not how the world works, that everytime is someone coming from outside that changes things and innovates.”
“So now I laugh because they are just getting me more press, and are people who will never get anything done. Our scientists are excellent scientists, our science advisory board is the best around. I have everything and I have nothing to feel bad about.”
If people wants to follow the developments, or get involved somehow and participate?
“This is our website: http://www.bioviva-science.com/, we have a Facebook page and a YouTube channel. I strongly suggest anyone to get involved, wherever you are coming from, whatever your background, we want people to know we exist. You can help, stay involved with us and always keep us on our toes so we are the best company possible. We want to drive costs down for gene therapies, so that people can get them and we want the public to have an eye on us. You can help us by sharing our story or having a conversation with us.”
See you soon here in Chile?
“I would love to.”
Exosphere is a learning & problem-solving community and startup-laboratory based in Reñaca Beach, Chile. We create the physical and mental space and process for innovative people to come together and solve world’s problems through application of emerging technology.
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