Category: Health & Medicine

Can Doping Tests Stay Ahead of Cheaters?

By David Warmflash | August 29, 2016 11:31 am
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(Credit: Stefan Schurr/Shutterstock)

The 100-meter dash, the pole vault, a marathon, a bike race, and any other sport under the sun have one thing in common: winning depends on pushing physical performance to the max.

The pressure on athletes to push their bodies to the limit has produced a longstanding tit-for-tat between the athletes sneaking chemical agents into their blood or body cells to gain an edge and those trying to detect them.

Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that any prospective dopers had better think twice about artificially gaining a competitive advantage. The IOC isn’t talking about traditional doping tactics like getting infusions of extra red blood cells or injections of performance-enhancing hormones. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: genes & health

Can Virtual Reality Help Astronauts Keep Their Cool?

By Shannon Stirone | August 4, 2016 1:58 pm
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Scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

While astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year on the International Space Station, he expressed frustration with the ho-hum accommodations inside the ISS — it’s dullsville.

The temperature remains exactly the same day in and day out. The décor is a sterile mix of machines and wires. Astronauts are isolated, confined to small spaces and under a considerable amount of stress. While the vistas outside their window are no doubt spectacular, humans need a hint of nature’s greens and blues to stay happy.

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The interior of the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. You get a sense of the sterile surroundings. (Credit: NASA)

The monotony of space can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned astronaut, and psychological stress is a serious side effect of living in a habitat of connected tubes orbiting Earth. So scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel, and reduce psychological stress that astronauts experience on long duration missions.

“Things can go badly if the psychosocial elements aren’t managed properly. When you talk about longer and longer missions with a small crew it becomes really critical to have that social aspect right,” he says.

Floating in a Virtual World

Jay Buckey — a former space shuttle astronaut — is now a professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth. Each space shuttle mission runs around three weeks, so Buckey’s not experienced the same monotony as Scott Kelly. Despite his pleasant trip to space, he still felt called to help. Buckey and his colleagues are using calming imagery to see if virtual scenes reduce stress levels.

“I wanted to focus on many of the issues that would serve as a barrier to long duration spaceflight,” says Buckey. “The psychosocial adaptation element is crucial to a good mission.”

His theory is that exposure to bucolic landscapes — even virtual ones — can reduce stress. To do this, Buckey and his team created two types of “escapes” for the subjects to try. The test subjects were either given a trip to the lush green hills of Ireland, or a serene beach landscape in Australia. As a control, test subjects sat in a classroom and researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance.

“We are assuming that natural scenes will be preferred,” explains Buckey. “But, people in an isolated and confined environment might want an urban scene.”

To quantify the stress relief, Buckey’s team will measure the electrodermal activity in the skin of their test subjects to track fluctuations of psychological arousal and stress, providing insights into who is responding best to a given scene.

Buckey is also adding another twist to his experiments: shining a heat lamp on subjects viewing a beach scene to enhance their virtual experience.

“VR is an immersive world and we would like to optimize the scenes to find out what it is about these that people find the most compelling. As the tech improves and you get higher definition video you can really immerse somebody in a nature scene,” says Buckey. “Would people rather have a vista, or animals, and what other kinds of sensations would people like?”

Currently astronauts on the International Space Station use a tool called the Virtual Space Station — essentially a virtual therapy session. This VR software doesn’t provide stress reduction in the way that Buckey is exploring, but it has tools for conflict resolution, and training on how to handle interpersonal disagreements if and when they arise.

Back to Nature

Buckey’s experiments are still ongoing, so his results aren’t finalized. However, the notion that nature is good for our brain is nothing new — dozens of scientific studies back this up. In a more recent study, researchers from South Korea used fMRI to measure subjects’ brain activity when they looked at nature scenes versus urban scenes. Urban scenes activated the amygdala, which is linked to heightened anxiety and increased stress. On the other hand, nature scenes caused more blood to flow to regions in the brain associated with empathy and altruistic behavior.

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A study subject enjoys a scene augmented with a heat lamp. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

At the University of Verona in Italy, researchers showed that “being in” a natural setting improved cognitive functioning, and participants completed tasks more efficiently with less mental fatigue. Nature can also lower our blood pressure and heighten our mood.

The data from the Dartmouth lab won’t be published for several more months, but the team hopes its experiment will move one step closer to helping future astronauts, and other people who work in isolation, cope with stress.

If it turns out that the data from Buckey’s experiments show a reduction in stress, future astronauts could perhaps work a regimen of VR medicine into their weekly routine. So far, Buckey thinks the preliminary results are encouraging, but “these are highly individualized responses, and is very subjective.”

“It depends on the outcome of what we have. We haven’t really proven that it works that well yet so I think its important for us to show that there’s a tangible benefit to having this.”

Lessons from the Past

In 1980 a group of scientists ventured off into the cold and isolated region of Antarctica as part of the International Biomedical Expedition. The IBEA was designed to understand how the human body would acclimate to extremely cold environments, isolation and the psychological responses to this type of stress. It dramatically highlighted the need for stress reduction for team members.

As the expedition continued, crewmembers grew homesick, isolation wore them down and they grew more and more irritable. Several scientists on the team simply walked out of the experiment before it was completed, due to these stressors.

In the 1980s, psychological stress drove a rift between cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev and his commander Anatoly Berezovoy while they were living aboard the Russian Space Station Salyut 7.

Lebedev wrote a book called Diary of a Cosmonaut where he shared stories of conflicts so severe that they sometimes went weeks without speaking to each other. In space, and especially on a longer mission to Mars, communication is key. Conflicts of this scale aren’t an option. In other words, keeping stress levels low is key to planning a successful mission.

History’s Strangest Baldness ‘Cures’

By Eric Bender, Murdoc Khaleghi and Bobby Singh | August 2, 2016 2:45 pm
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Hippocrates, the “the father of Western medicine” had a rather strange remedy for baldness—it didn’t work. (Credit: blackboard1965/Shutterstock)

For most people, baldness wouldn’t make it into the Top Ten Worst Things Ever; that list is more likely to be dominated by Ebola, cancer, dementia, and Kevin Federline’s Playing with Fire album.

Nonetheless, it is a condition that countless men find distressing as they endure taunts like “Mr. Clean,” “cue ball,” or “chrome dome.” Surprisingly, attempts at curing baldness do not originate in our modern, superficial society. Actually, when it comes to palliating the naturally depilated pate, strange “cures” date back thousands of years. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: personal health

A Sneak Peek at the First Cyborg Olympics

By Caroline Barlott | June 22, 2016 7:30 am
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OPRA Osseointegratio, a Sweden, designed a surgically implanted prosthetic limb, which is in human trials. (Credit: ETH Zurich)

While working as a professor in the sensory-motor systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), Robert Riener noticed a need for assistive devices that would better meet the challenge of helping people with daily life. He knew there were solutions, but that it would require motivating developers to rise to the challenge.

So, Riener created Cybathlon, the first cyborg Olympics where teams from all over the world will participate in races on Oct. 8 in Zurich that will test how well their devices perform routine tasks. Teams will compete in six different categories that will push their assistive devices to the limit on courses developed carefully over three years by physicians, developers and the people who use the technology. Eighty teams have signed up so far.

Riener wants the event to emphasize how important it is for man and machine to work together—so participants will be called pilots rather than athletes, reflecting the role of the assistive technology.

“The goal is to push the development in the direction of technology that is capable of performing day-to-day tasks. And that way, there will an improvement in the future life of the person using the device,” says Riener.

Here’s a look at events that will be featured in the first cyborg Olympics.

Brain-Computer Interface Race

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A pilot plays a video game with a brain-computer interface during a Cybathlon rehearsal last year. (Credit: ETH Zurich)

A woman sits at a computer while wearing a cap that has several electrodes attached to her head, wires cascading down her back waves. She’s playing a video game, but instead of using her hands, she’s using only her thoughts to drive a brain-computer interface system.

During the Cybathlon, participants with complete or severely impaired motor function will use their thoughts to control an avatar in a racing video game. The winner will be the first to complete the race, maneuvering an avatar over obstacles and accelerating to the finish line. An algorithm will help determine which team’s interface performed the best. Brain-computer interface devices are a key technologies that will allow people to control future prostheses with their minds.

Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race

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Electrodes placed on the outside of the legs stimulate the muscles, giving racers the leg-power they need during a bike race. (Credit: ETH Zurich)

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is a technique that sends electrical impulses to paralyzed individuals’ muscles to trigger movement. FES can help build muscle mass, increase blood circulation and and improve cardiovascular health. At Cybathlon, paralyzed bike racers will rely on FES to complete about five laps around a racetrack, equalling about 2,200 feet — first to the finish wins. Electrodes will deliver electrical stimulation to their muscles, giving them the leg-power to pedal their bikes. The pilots can actually control how much current they send to their muscles, so balancing speed and stamina will be key to winning the race.

Generally, electrodes are placed on a persons’s skin, but one team—the Center for Advanced Platform Technology from Cleveland—will surgically implant them closer to nerves where they can reach more fiber, reduce muscle fatigue and increase precision. Members of Team Cleveland developed implants — over the course of two decades — that allow a person with paraplegia to stand, perform leg lifts and take steps. For Cybathlon, they’ll adapt their system for bike riding.

Powered Arm Prosthesis Race

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The prosthetic arm from the M.A.S.S. Impact team. (Credit: ETH Zurich)

The powered arm prosthesis race will show just how important performing basic, daily tasks are to Riener. Pilots with arm amputations will need to carry a tray of breakfast items, for example, and then prepare a meal by opening a jar of jam, slicing bread and putting butter on the bread — tasks that are easy to take for granted. Pinning clothing on a clothes line and putting together a puzzle with pieces that will each require a different type of grip are also challenges in this event.

A prosthetic hand created by the M.A.S.S. Impact team from Simon Fraser University in Canada is a unique design that uses sensors and algorithms to recognize a grip pattern, and users  can control the bionic hand in small, precise movements. The system also generates computer models to improve function over time. Last year, organizers held a Cybathlon rehearsal last year, and Riener was especially impressed by OPRA Osseointegratio, a Swedish team that designed a surgically implanted hand controlled by a person voluntarily contracting his muscles. The technology is currently in human trials, and the team’s pilot is the first recipient.

Powered Leg Prosthesis Race

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Designing prostheses for lower limbs presents an entirely different set of challenges. Riener hopes to see prosthetic legs at the Cybathlon that can handle uneven terrain, which has been a challenge in the past. During the leg prosthesis race, pilots will compete on parallel tracks through obstacle courses laden with beams, stones, stairs and slopes. Right now, only the most advanced prostheses can handle these challenges — many are heavy and aren’t powerful enough.

Team Össur will bring four different prosthetic legs to the competition. Riener says this team in particular is making incredible advancements in the field. He’s particularly impressed with their commercially available motorized knee prosthesis, as he says it’s more robust and reliable than many past devices. The team is also entering a powered leg prosthesis that is an upgrade to the powered knee and is still a prototype stage; it uses motorized joints to help achieve a natural gait.

Powered Exoskeleton Race

(Credit: ETH Zurich)

(Credit: ETH Zurich)

Exoskeletons are worn around the legs to help those with paraplegia walk or even climb stairs. While they’ve been used by physiotherapists in hospitals to improve the health of patients with paralyzed legs, Riener says many designs are still bulky and difficult to use on a daily basis. There are about six companies around the world with exoskeletons on the market, and more prototypes are being developed in research labs around the world.

The Cybathlon exoskeleton event will include tasks that are particularly difficult for people using this technology to accomplish, such as stepping over stones and walking up a slope.

“With these challenges, we’re hoping to see more lifelike exoskeletons with more movability,” says Riener.

Powered Wheelchair Race

(Credit: ETH Zurich)

(Credit: ETH Zurich)

Those who use wheelchairs encounter challenges that other people might take for granted. Riener is excited to see how powered wheelchairs are evolving, getting smaller and more capable—in some cases even climbing stairs.

“At Cybathlon, they will have to fit beneath a table, go up a steep ramp, open a door and then close it again, and go down a steep ramp,” says Riener.

Scewo, a team from ETH Zurich developed a wheelchair that balances on two wheels like a Segway and can use a chain to climb up stairs or steep ramps.

While some of the teams are entering technology that is already on the market, Riener is especially excited to see new innovations that have been created from scratch, specifically for Cybathlon.

“It’s exciting to reach a large audience to talk about issues related to people with disabilities,” he says.

Gene Therapy in ‘Orphan Black’ Is Pretty Spot-on

By David Warmflash | June 16, 2016 9:00 am
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(Credit: Ken Woroner © BBC AMERICA)

Gene therapy is all the rage among researchers in several fields of medicine, and the BBC America sci-fi TV hit Orphan Black has made sure to get its own piece of the action.

As with reproductive cloning and other biotech issues hashed out over the last four years, characters in the “The Black” are making references to gene therapy with a twist that’s far-fetched, but grounded in state-of-the-art science and real-life emerging possibilities.

With the season 4 finale set to air tonight, Orphan Black fans know what’s going on with those little maggot-shaped bioelectronic cheek implants. At least for some characters, the implants are gene therapy delivery devices. The idea of an implant for gene therapy delivery is a problem scientists in the real world are working to solve, and while there’s no medical reason for using the cheek as the site of implantation, there is a location nearby the cheek where the first real-life gene therapy implants are likely to go: the ear.

Deploying Carrier Vectors

Most basic and clinical research in gene therapy uses DNA that is packaged inside carrier particles known as vectors. A vector can be a virus, a liposome (a spherical container similar to the HDL and LDL carriers that transport your “good” and “bad” cholesterol, respectively, in blood), or a variety of structures made of different chemical polymers.

Vectors have tradeoffs that differ depending on the genetic payload and the type of cells targeted. For instance, a type of viral vector called a retrovirus is good for modifying dividing cells, but not useful for diseases where non-dividing cells need to be changed.

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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With gene therapy today, the most commonly used vector is called the adeno-associated virus (AAV). There are various subtypes of AAV, and each subtype determines which body tissues and organs will receive the treatment. Compared with other viruses, AAV tends not to stimulate the immune system easily, particularly if the treatment is administered just once.

One more advantage of AAV is that it delivers its genetic payload into target cells as an episome – a piece of DNA that utilizes the cell’s machinery to make the needed gene product, but does not insert itself into a chromosome. This minimizes the risk of disrupting other genes, which could kill the cell or transform it into a cancer cell.

The Downside

AAV can only carry a small genetic payload, however.

By injecting AAV carrying the AADC gene, a relatively small package, into a part of the brain called the putamen, neurosurgeons can restore long-term functions in Parkinson patients. It’s working, because the AADC gene just barely fits inside the AAV.

Things are different with the much larger gene that’s broken in people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In the latter case, advances are on the horizon because of a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing system that does fit inside AAV, allowing for correction of the faulty gene that DMD patient’s have. But the research is still in its early stages.

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(Credit: Science Translational Medicine)

Biophysical Approaches

Other gene therapy delivery systems rely as much on physics as they do on chemistry.

A device called a gene gun shoots tiny gold or tungsten spheres coated with the needed DNA into cells. Once inside, the genetic material detaches from the spheres.

Electroporation, using electricity to punch temporary holes in cell membranes to help naked DNA make its way into the cell, is another physical gene therapy tactic. Researchers are also studying ultrasound, hydrodynamic and magnetic methods of delivery.

DNA carries an electromagnetic charge — a negative charge, due to chemical entities called phosphate groups. This enables the molecule to be directed in an electromagnetic field, which in turn opens the possibility of merging genetic and electronic components. That’s a biophysical reality that underlies the maggot-like implants of Orphan Black, but it’s also a gene therapy implant that is emerging in the real world.

You may know someone with a cochlear implant, or you may have one yourself, and so you know that they facilitate the transference of sound waves in the air into nerve signals. But researchers have demonstrated in guinea pigs that a cochlear implant also can be used for electro-injection of DNA molecules into the nerve cells that carry impulses from the cochlea (the hearing component of the inner ear) to the brain.

These nerve cells comprise the cochlear branch of the vestibulocochlear nerve, but their degeneration leads to nerve deafness. Treating the cells with genes that make proteins called neurotrophins regenerates the nerve, so the next step is to develop similar implants for humans.

Testing of such implants has not yet begun on humans, but it may happen within a few years, certainly before you begin seeing Orphan Black style implants sending genetic payload through the body from the cheek.

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Destiny Isn’t Completely Written in Your Genes

By David Warmflash | June 10, 2016 11:31 am
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( Gio.tto/Shutterstock)

The turn of the 21st century was an exciting time in the history of genetics.

The first sequencing of the human genome was completed in 2003 and it provided numerous insights to the scientific community and society in general. In 2000, during his final State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton made a point of how all humans share 99.9 percent of our genome — it’s actually more like 99.7 percent.

By honing in on the genetic variants, or mutations, that exist for certain genes in the human population, medical geneticists achieved a capability that would have looked like science fiction to physicians of the 1970s. Deciphering the genetics that underlay our existence has so far led to measurable success in gene therapy for certain conditions, but scientists are realizing that genes do not have the final say in what happens to a cell and its owner. Read More

Mental Health Alerts via Facebook?

By Dani-Elle Dube | May 23, 2016 1:26 pm
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(Credit: Gil C/Shutterstock)

Every day, 730,000 comments and 420 billion statuses are posted on Facebook, 500 billion 140-character tweets are posted and 430,000 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube.

The Internet is a goldmine of data just waiting to be analyzed.

Ever since social media crept deeper and deeper into our daily lives, governments and advertisers have been utilizing this data for myriad purposes. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, University of Alberta and the Université de Montpellier in France is examining ways to use social media data to detect and monitor people who are potentially at risk of mental health issues. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: mental health

Lessons from ‘Living Cadavers’

By Ben Thomas | May 10, 2016 3:01 pm
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(Credit: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

The dead, the headlines read, might soon be brought back to life.

As pop-science headlines tend to, they blew the actual research proposal out of proportion, but the premise is real: The ReAnima Project recently received “ethical permission” from the government of India to take 20 patients who’ve been declared clinically brain dead, and try to restore a limited range of brain functions using cutting-edge neuroscience techniques.

When we get past the knee-jerk references to zombies and Dr. Frankenstein, though, we’re left with the question of what this research is really about. Can scientists actually bring brain-dead patients back to life? Has anyone tried it before? And what does it mean, exactly, to resurrect a brain dead person? Read More

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Liz Parrish Is Patient Zero in Her Own Anti-Aging Experiment

By David Warmflash | April 29, 2016 12:13 pm
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Liz Parrish is a CEO, humanitarian and patient zero in her own experiment. (Credit: BioViva)

Elizabeth (Liz) Parrish is the CEO of BioViva, a biotechnology company that focuses on developing gene therapies, and other regenerative therapies, to intervene with human aging.

Last September, Parrish added an interesting line to her job description: patient zero for two anti-aging therapies that the company is researching.

Parrish is receiving two kinds of injections, which are administered outside the United States: a myostatin inhibitor, which is expected to prevent age-associated muscle loss; and a telomerase gene therapy, which is expected to lengthen telomeres, segments of DNA at the ends of chromosomes whose shortening is associated with aging and degenerative disease.

The study will likely continue for many years. But last week, BioViva issued a press release describing an unexpected early result, offering a clue as to what the BioViva team might publish in the weeks or months to come.

It will be unclear exactly what the BioViva researchers have found until the results do go through the rigorous process of scientific peer-review, but the un-reviewed BioViva report is raising some eyebrows. Telomeres of T-lymphocytes in blood samples taken from Parrish in September were 6.71 kilobases. That’s shorter than normal for Parrish’s age, but lymphocytes from the samples taken in March after six months of gene therapy measured 7.33 kb, according to BioViva.

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In this illustration of a chromosome, the telomeres are highlighted in green. (Wikimedia) 

The company equates the reported 620-base increase to reversing the clock on Parrish’s chromosomes by twenty years. But there are numerous caveats noted by experts in genetics and laboratory medicine that were recently published by the non-profit group Genetics Expert News Service.

For one thing, telomeres are being tested only in her T-lymphocytes, as opposed to all tissue types of her body, so even if the test result were evidence for de-aging of T-lymphocytes it doesn’t necessarily prove her entire body de-aged.

“Long-lived T cells have shorter telomere lengths than newly generated naïve cells; and cells which have reached their maximum limit of cell divisions have shorter telomeres than any other cell type,” says Rita Effros, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA. “Thus, a simple change in the proportion of different cell types within the peripheral blood could easily explain the data.”

Furthermore, notes Dr. Bradley Johnson, Associate Professor of Pathology and Lab Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “Telomere length measurements typically have low precision, with variation in measurements of around 10 percent, which is in the range of the reported telomere lengthening apparently experienced by Elizabeth Parrish.”

These criticisms notwithstanding, Parrish serving as patient zero for a brand new treatment is a milestone in medicine, one that harkens back to the medical pioneers who regularly injected themselves with various new drugs over a century ago. Before BioViva’s news broke, Discover’s Dr. David Warmflash interviewed Parrish about the therapies and her feelings about being the first test subject.


Discover: What would you say makes BioViva stand out from other biotech or gene therapy companies? Is it that you’re using yourself as a test subject?

Liz Parrish: Yes, and number two is treating biological aging as a disease. Actually, that is probably number one. We’re going at the root cause of what makes most of the population sick. And then second, of course, we’re 100 percent behind the product.

We’re using them. We are not just a research company. BioViva is about saving lives, and lessons from history suggest that the use of multiple experimental therapies at once may be the shortest route to saving lives. When AIDS research first began, we saw the use of many drugs which, when used in isolation, helped with one mechanism of the disease, but patients still died from another mechanism of the same disease. It was only when doctors combined those drugs into cocktails we saw the first real advances in combating AIDS.

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Do you feel any connection, or do you see yourself as carrying on a tradition of the those early medical researchers from the late 19th and early 20th century who tested different drugs on themselves?

LP: Yes, I guess so in retrospect. We didn’t do it in the spirit of that. We did it because it had to be done, because we needed a test patient on the gene therapy, but I think it is in that spirit and I wish more people had that spirit. The U.S. is 5 percent of the world population. We take 75 percent of all prescription drugs and yet have the shortest lifespan of every industrialized country, so I wish more people would get behind their drugs and other therapies. I think it would prove that what they have is something that you would want to take.

OK, so let’s talk about the therapies that you’re taking. Is there any concern the telomerase gene therapy could led to malignancy, to cancer, in any tissue?

LP: Telomerase has never been hypothesized to be the sole cause of cancer. Not all cancers have telomerase upregulated in them. Cancer cells can develop daily in your body from a very young age. But isn’t a youthful immune system is what keeps full-blown cancer at bay?

The confusion of longevity research with cancer research is a recurring misconception and implies correlations that have not been proven. There are two lines of research into telomerase: longevity and cancer. The two never intersect.

In longevity research we do not find ourselves looking at increases in cancerous cells from telomerase induction, but rather a protection against cancer.

In previous interviews with other people, you’ve alluded to the tragic story of Jesse Gelsinger, the 18-year-old boy who died in an early gene therapy clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.

Ethically, of course there’s a difference between Gelsinger and you; I’ve heard you say that this is worth risking your life for. But on top of the tragedy of Gelsinger losing his life, didn’t it also set the whole field of gene therapy back several years?  

From that perspective, in the unlikely event that something goes terribly wrong in the experiment on you, do you worry what might happen to gene therapy research? Have you considered this a possible rationale for slowing down, maybe taking a more conservative approach?

LP: Gene therapy has come a long way since the 1999 tragedy of Jesse Gelsinger.

The relevant research did not stop [after the event], only the applications, and even then only temporarily. But the big game-changer now is that we have better delivery methods.

Hundreds of people are partaking in gene therapies today and none have the issues we saw 16 years ago in Jesse Gelsinger. We also need to put this in perspective: almost 100,000 people already die of adverse drug reactions (ADEs) every year in the USA alone, while nobody has ever died from this latest generation of gene therapies.

That being said, we at BioViva are very careful to ensure the safest possible outcome while still testing every limit. I would not have taken a gene therapy that would have likely killed the patient and nor would anybody at BioViva. I simply stated that all data are equally important, and that to that end I would accept any outcome, up to and including my own death, in order to move the science forward.

We as a company, and I as a person did take a risk, but a risk we believe will change the world for the better and kick-start an industry with the best approach to curing disease and increasing healthy lifespan.

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What do you think about the idea that, the potential of the studies on you notwithstanding, you’re just one datum, so what will we really know?

LP: Yes, absolutely. That’s true, but N=1 from one human is worth 10,000 mice, but of course every human’s body is different and people are going to respond differently.

And of course the FDA since the 1970s has passed almost 50 drugs through the system to the market that it pulled later, despite going through gold standard testing. So that’s why we have to start now and see what happens. No matter what safety and efficacy you have, if you can have N=10,000, you’re probably going to have some adverse effects down the road.

Whether it’s directly related to the gene therapy or to something else in the patient’s life, it may take years to determine, so it’s very important to start now with gene therapy. Currently, over 100,000 people die of aging related diseases, so at what point do we realize that life is risky and that taking a chance may be our best bet?

Which tissues are they using to monitor your telomere length, given that telomeres vary between tissues? Generally, in telomere studies, lymphocytes are used, because they’re easy to access, but what factors went into deciding which tissues to use in you both for monitoring and targeting the therapy.

LP: We are using lymphocyte testing at this time, as it is the most advanced and well understood way to test telomere length today.

I also understand that to carry the therapeutic gene through your blood and into your cells, BioViva is using what’s called an AAV vector, which has the advantage of delivering the genetic payload so that it ends up as an episome (free floating gene), rather than being integrated into a chromosome.  

Is this a safety measure, to minimize the risk of mutagenesis and oncogenic transformation? Is there any possible negative to that, such as decreased duration of the effects?

LP: We are not necessarily trying to integrate the gene, as studies have not proven the benefit of doing so.

We are trying to create an episome in the nucleus, which will code for the target protein. Integration is still an important discussion because past delivery methods, which we avoid due to them creating integrational mutagenesis (integrating into the chromosome in random areas that caused the cell to become unstable).

We want to separate our method from that older method. Our delivery method does not cause integrational mutagenesis, and when it does integrate, it does so into a safe harbor site on chromosome 19 where cancer is not an outcome.

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Are there concerns among your team that treatment for slowing or reversing aging of healthy tissues could also prevent elimination of malignant or premalignant cells? 

LP: Cancer cells can appear in people of any age, but the proliferation of cancer cells owes more to a decrease in immune system capability than an increase in telomerase activity. Not all cancers involve telomerase production, and a peer-reviewed paper in 2012 showed that old mice saw no increase in cancer with telomerase induction.

Telomerase induction may actually be our first line of defense against cancer, because a youthful immune system regularly rids the body of cancerous cells. The mechanism of telomerase could restore cells epigenetically to a youthful state exhibiting fewer aging gene biomarkers. An example would be turning off the genes that turn on as we age such as P53, a tumor-associated gene.

If you were to develop a common type of cancer, how would we know if it’s from the gene therapy, or because you would have gotten it anyway?

LP: If I was to be diagnosed with cancer, we could have that cancer sequenced to see if it had an extra copy of the target gene [from the gene therapy].

So, you’re getting telomerase gene therapy as well as a myostatin inhibitor. Was there any discussion about the merits of giving you two experimental therapies at the same time? Imagine it’s the year 2096, you’re 120 plus, looking and feeling exactly as you do today and you have the blood chemistry of a 25 year-old. How would we know which therapy did it?

LP: Such an amazing outcome, if it happened, would necessarily be due to both those two therapies or more.

We believe that these two types of therapy are synergistic, and will benefit each other in ways that will maximize outcome. One gene therapy is hypothesized to create better signaling with stem cells. The other creates stem cells that can potentially divide indefinitely, as stem cell depletion is a risk for older people.

These benefits, combined with the protection against frailty or sarcopenia (loss of muscle tissue) with a myostatin inhibitor, and the more youthful epigenetics of a cell with telomerase induction, makes this combined therapy very powerful.

MORE ABOUT: genetics

Mindfulness in the Military

By Ella Xiong | April 14, 2016 3:17 pm
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(Credit: S-F/Shutterstock)

Sprinkling “Omm” mantras between “Ooh Rah!” battle cries can pay dividends for members of the Marine Corps and other branches of the military. According to a growing body of research, regular meditation improves the wellbeing of military members — both active duty and those who have previously served.

Meditation is rooted in spirituality, which affects personal wellness in its own way, but the neurological underpinnings of meditation’s other health benefits are being widely assessed by researchers, and they’re building a scientific case for its benefits. Read More

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