He has skipped all the rules to try an anti-aging treatment. Today she is the only patient of a pioneering method. She is 45 years old and is determined to overcome aging and convince science that it is possible.
Science claims that astronauts, when on a mission, age more slowly. Just microseconds, but they return to Earth more «young». Maybe Elizabeth Parrish tries to imitate them with so much travel. In the last two weeks he has traveled tens of thousands of kilometers flying between the United States and Germany (twice), a flight to South America, another to Russia, an air excursion to London and several transfers between Washington, where he has his headquarters, and other American cities. That’s why finding it has been so complex, but by combining phone and email in different continents we have managed to land and explain to Quo how he plans to cure aging. Because for Liz, as she prefers to be called, getting old is a disease, not a process. She is the zero patient of a therapy that she has designed so that time is more benevolent with her body. And, judging from the first results, he’s getting it. Although it is facing governments, regulatory agencies and scientific colleagues, with the aim of testing in humans a therapy whose side effects are unknown.
An update to be younger
«I was not prepared to discover that biological aging is really a disease,» Parrish explains to Quo. I took the time to talk to many experts and discovered that some of the agents that cause diseases in children are accelerated aging processes. It was necessary to understand that the cells of the body are like a computer and much of the damage they cause over time is because they are programmed for it. Some people suffer from this deterioration at a young age, that is, some have programming problems, genetic. But we are all accumulating these damages that will eventually lead us to the symptoms of old age and cause us death. » What Elizabeth Parris tries, continuing with the simile, is to update us.
«Exact!» Exclaims Liz. «For that, one of the most important things we need is to obtain information in humans. We have cured the cancer hundreds of times in mice, reverse the formation of arteriosclerosis plaques and biological aging with telomerase inducers. But we are not using those techniques in humans. So I decided to try them on myself. I’m going to show that it’s a safe therapy. »
The first results indicate that Parrish has made his cells 20 years younger. But the scientific community demands more data
That therapy to which Parrish refers has two parts. On the one hand are the telomeres. In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of the «scissors» that divide cells: telomeres. These are repetitive sequences of DNA that protect them from degradation after each division. In a sense, they are like ink in a photocopier: they try to make the copy of the copy as close as possible to the original. The problem is that no matter how much ink you have, the copy of a copy of a copy (and so on) is not as good as the original: in cellular terms this amounts to saying that when a cell is divided, the two resulting have less telomeres than his «mother.»
And this is the reason for aging: the more our cells divide, the less similar they appear to the original, until they are so different that the differences could produce a risk and that branch of the family immolates itself for the sake of the rest. Thus, if we had a constant contribution of telomerase, the «nutritional supplement» of the telomeres, in charge of adding pieces of DNA so that there are no bad readings, aging would be much slower.
This has already been demonstrated by one of the pioneers in this field, María Blasco, director of the National Center for Oncological Research (CNIO) who has carried out a telomerase therapy in mice and managed to extend her life by 30%. But how has Parrish done it? Is there any way to explain it in a simple way?
«Surely, the patient responds zero to this treatment-. It is a gene therapy, but we did not put the genes directly, we use vectors through which we transmit the information we want. And these vectors are viruses. We know that viruses are essentially good at making us sick, but we use viruses that do not make us sick and we use them because they have the ability to connect with our cells and transmit their genetic material. In gene therapy, we remove viruses from the ability to get sick and put the information we want in our cells. In a certain sense it is very simple science. We are not creating molecules that you have to eat and go to a place in your body to create an effect. What we are doing is delivering a gene to the cell,
The risks of being the patient zero
There is only one small drawback. This therapy has not yet been tested in humans. When we consulted María Blasco about it, her answer was clear. «We do not know if in humans the extension (achieved in mice) would be the same or not. From the outset, humans are much more protected from aging than mice. While in humans up to 40 years it is very rare to suffer diseases associated with aging, such as heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, in mice everything happens much faster and they begin to develop diseases at one year of age. At 2 years, most of the mice have already died. Therefore, something that extends life in mice by 30% could extend life in humans by 3% or 300%, we do not know … Anyway, The objective of understanding how to modulate longevity in mice or other model organisms is to understand which are the important molecular processes, determine the speed of aging to be able to intervene with the intention of preventing diseases linked to the passage of time or even treat them more efficiently. Right now there are many pathologies associated with old age that we neither know how to prevent nor how to cure, «says María Blasco.
And this is exactly what Parrish intends. What happens is that in the United States the trials with humans are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and until this agency does not approve, they can not be started … Unless it is in another country.
«If you manage to treat aging with this therapy, it will only be long-term,» predicts María Blasco
That’s why Parrish went to Colombia to start the first phase of the trial. Before starting, the Bioviva team, the company that Parrish runs, measured the length of the leukocyte telomeres and did it again after the therapy. The results show that their telomeres lengthened from 6.71 kb or kilobases (kb: a thousand DNA base pairs) to 7.33 kb. In a nutshell, your cells are 20 years younger.
Muscles for your stem cells
The other part of the treatment Parrish underwent involves the use of inhibitors of myostatin, a protein that obstructs muscle growth. In fact, sarcopenia (the loss of muscle mass from 30 years of age) kills 6% of the population. «So we block myostatin and our muscles keep growing,» says Parrish. But not only that. The benefits also include increased insulin sensitivity, decreased fat and an aid for the signals from the stem cells. Many people die looking very old, even if their stem cells are very healthy. That’s because they never received the signal to help the body regenerate. »
A therapy to challenge them all
Is this enough information for FDA to approve human trials? Is there any context that justifies skipping the regulatory agencies and becoming «guinea pig»? For Maria Blasco is more than clear and her answer is Spartan: «None.» George Martin, pathologist, expert in genomic sciences and until a few weeks ago a member of the scientific board of BioViva, something similar happens. «Liz is an extremely hardworking and conscientious woman,» he explained to Quo in a telephone conversation, «but in my opinion the goal of the medical sciences is to cure and for that we must follow certain rules. That is the reason why I asked to leave the council. »
Another member of the same council, which remains in him, is the well-known geneticist George Church. Church’s work is one more proof that BioViva investigates with diffuse ethical limits. He was the one who proposed to resuscitate a Neanderthal and came to look for a human who wanted to breed him. Church is aware that such work would be declared illegal in many countries, but this is something that does not stop him.
There is no controversy for Parrish either. «I think it’s a right to be able to do what you want with your own body and that we should be able to pay a doctor to do it as safely as possible. Initially, we kept the site where the trials were conducted and the people involved in it secret, because as the director of the company I wanted to protect my staff. Now that the results have proven to be positive, we have released the data. »
The step has undoubtedly been risky. Not only because of the adverse effects that treatment could have on humans, but because when requesting approval from the FDA, the agency may not view this «insubordination» against the established order with good eyes, an act that could set precedents . The question then is, how do you plan to convince the FDA to approve this treatment and be able to begin the trials?
And Parrish already has it in mind. «Every day we lose close to 100,000 people because of aging,» he says in his conversation with Quo. And we are not facing this reality as the catastrophe that it is. We think that it is a normal process, but we must bear in mind that it is a very expensive one. In 2020 there will be more people over 65 who are under 5 years old. We have to think about how to make people work longer and be more active and healthy. There is no point in preventing the development of a technology that would allow us to save the billions of dollars spent on finding the cure for diseases related to aging, when we can directly treat what produces them. »
If successful, Parrish’s commitment could not only extend our life expectancy, it would also have a huge impact on the economy, especially on pensions. At what age should we retire? How much would education extend? How would the pensions be paid if we live 20 more years? Have you thought about it? «The truth is that I do not ask myself those kinds of questions,» says Parrish. My job is to mitigate the diseases that we can cure. If we think we have a possible solution, it would be immoral not to share it. How long will we live? I do not know, but I would like it to be as long as possible and in the best conditions. »
The therapy being carried out Elizabeth Parrish could have potential to treat diseases related to aging such as cancer, duchenne, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, kidney problems, leukemia, esophagitis of Barret … The list is long. «The first people who should benefit from it,» Parrish explains, «are terminal patients. Then, if the data obtained are positive, we could start with patients with milder diagnoses and finally reach the area of preventive care «. For this to happen, only one requirement will be necessary: »That the regulatory agencies recognize old age as a disease», concludes María Blasco.
Why do you add Miostatin?
From 50 years of age, muscle mass decreases between 1 and 2% and strength 1.5% annually and up to 3% from 60 years. Myostatin, also known as growth differentiation factor 8, not only solves this muscle loss. «He also works with telomerase,» says Parrish. This increases the supply of stem cells and myostatin would allow more stem cells to activate
and regenerate tissues. »