There’s a big difference between scientists and science educators. I’m not demeaning science educators, whether they’re university professors or YouTube creators. Their work is important, but they’re not expanding the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
Discovery through research is what differentiates scientists from people like me, who simply explain what real researchers have discovered. Some research scientists, however, also educate via classrooms, books, and lectures.
Of this group, a few have been elevated to celebrity status.
Among the most recognized of these multitasking research scientists is George M. Church, a geneticist who holds positions with Harvard Medical School and MIT.
Church’s contributions in the area of genetic engineering are impressive, as are his patents and research papers. He’s also the author of a popular book and director of The Personal Genome Project, dedicated to sharing information about genomics, health, and traits.
Because of his work on the cutting edge of genetics, Church is recognized by the scientific community and the media as someone whose opinions matter. He’s cited frequently, and he influences public opinion.
For that reason, a recent story about a startup biotech he co-founded is a lot more important than it may appear.
The Battle to Overcome Red Tape and Resistance
The article, “A stealthy Harvard startup wants to reverse aging in dogs, and humans could be next,” enjoys additional credibility because it is in MIT Technology Review.
Superficially, the subject of the story is Rejuvenate Bio, a company that intends to fix genetic errors that shorten the lives of certain dog breeds. The bigger story, though, is summed up in the story’s subhead, “Biologist George Church says the idea is to live to 130 in the body of a 22-year-old.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect expression of the conflict raging within the community of anti-aging researchers. Let me break it down.
For decades, leading biogerontologists have insisted that health spans can be extended, significantly reducing the healthcare cost for expensive, lethal, age-related diseases. This vision of medicine is based on the notion that all age-related secondary illnesses are symptoms of one primary disease: aging.
In the last few years, new scientific evidence has made this task much easier. Finally, advocates of anti-aging medicine in the most respected universities and institutions have begun to get traction. They are amassing growing evidence that morbidity—the time people spend sick and frail—can be compressed to just a few years at the end of their lives.
They haven’t won the debate yet, though. Healthcare is the most heavily regulated bureaucratic segment of the economy. Revolutions, even when they drive civilization forward, are messy, troublesome things that engender pushback from existing institutions. It isn’t surprising that progress has been slow, but it is nevertheless frustrating.
The frustration is due to the fact that people die every day because we haven’t switched from a disease-based medical model to a preventative, anti-aging one. It is inevitable that the transformation will occur, but the lives lost in the interim are irretrievable.
Technologies exist that will rejuvenate the aged and give them lives that resemble those of the super-agers. These are the people, like my grandmother, who live about a hundred years free of serious disease and then pass quickly without extended suffering. A slightly more ambitious goal is to replicate supercentenarian lifespans.
While the definition of a supercentenarian is someone who makes it to 110 years or longer, some of them live into their 120s.
The longest-lived example is Jeanne Calment of Arles, France. This graphic, from the website of Betterhumans Inc. tells her story succinctly. Incidentally, Church is a scientific advisor to the organization.
It’s unlikely that Calment’s longevity could be blamed on healthy living. She smoked for a century, survived copper sulfate poisoning, and drank almost to the end of her 122-year-long life.
The Hayflick Limit May Not Be a Hard Line
It’s possible that other people have outlived Calment because many of the oldest people living today were born before record-keeping was established. It’s generally accepted, however, that the maximum human lifespan is less than 125 years.
This is based on what we know about the Hayflick Limit, the maximum number of times a cell can replicate due to a limited supply of telomeres that hold the double helix together during mitosis. If you’re interested in drilling down a little into the basic science, the Khan Academy has an excellent presentation online.
If you understand the Hayflick Limit, you’ll also understand why Church’s statement that he intends “to live to 130 in the body of a 22-year-old” is so meaningful and clever.
If you can live to 130, you’ve surpassed the Hayflick Limit. If you can do it in a body that is biologically young, it means all bets are off. There may be something that prevents humans from living thousands of years, but we don’t know what that would be.
Canines Today, Humans Tomorrow
I’ve been to conferences where aging researchers insisted that we should never talk about radical regenerative medicine. I understand their concern. It’s been a hard slog to sell the idea that we can all be super-agers or ultra-centenarians, and a lot of people still reject the idea.
The fear of many gerontologists is that people who doubt that it’s possible to give people super-ager lifespans will totally reject anti-aging biotechnologies if we start talking about more ambitious goals.
At this point, however, the cat’s out of the bag.
Because George Church is openly working on technology to reverse aging in pets, there’s no way to hide the fact that it is only an intermediary step to age reversal in humans.
In fact, treating pets is the business strategy set forth publicly by Rejuvenate Bio, the company co-founded by Church and covered in the linked article. The name of the company, however, makes it obvious that he’s working on more than curing genetic diseases in canines.
Until the FDA recognizes aging as a treatable disease, it makes sense to go after the veterinary and pet markets, which have far less burdensome regulatory hurdles. Success in the pet market would also help educate the public and create support for human anti-aging therapies.
Church’s expertise is in gene editing, and MIT has filed patents for the use of those tools to control aging in a variety of animal species. According to MIT Technology Review, Rejuvenate Bio has been awarded a grant from the US Special Operations Command to investigate the “enhancement” of military dogs.
But Rejuvenate Bio is not the only company working on radical rejuvenation. The most promising, in my opinion, is AgeX, a subsidiary of BioTime (*see disclosure below).
Gene Reactivation Instead of Gene Editing
The AgeX approach differs from Rejuvenate Bio’s in that it does not permanently alter the patient’s genome. Rather, it exploits the fact that small-molecule drugs can activate or deactivate specific genes. Founder Michael West’s goal is to temporarily reactivate embryonic gene pathways that can restore adults to the state of a healthy 20-something.
This process would not make a patient 22 forever, which appears to be Church’s goal. An AgeX patient who underwent iTR would be restored to that state but age normally after the procedure. Therefore, it would be necessary to repeat the process periodically to avoid the diseases of aging and age-related mortality for good.
That impermanence might be an advantage, though. Gene editing permanently changes the genome, and I don’t even like tattoos. Yes, you can remove tattoos, and it’s theoretically possible to reverse genetic engineering—but small-molecule drug therapies could be simply discontinued if problems or superior solutions arise.
Both approaches to rejuvenation are incredibly promising and valuable. Rejuvenation Bio’s platform presumably could fix the genetic problems that cause childhood diseases. The AgeX platform wouldn’t. What it would do is repair damage caused by trauma and disease, even regrowing missing limbs and organs.
AgeX and Rejuvenate Bio are not the only groups tackling the Hayflick Limit. The Salk Institute and the Weizmann Institute are also working on regenerative solutions to aging. One company, BioViva, is pursuing its own gene editing technology aimed at lengthening telomeres, and the CEO has used the technology to modify some of her own body’s cells.
Another company I’m following closely is developing small-molecule drugs and appears to have at least one animal that has already outlived its species’ maximum lifespan by a factor of two.
(By the way, if you want to make sure to get my full research and analysis on these types of groundbreaking treatments and the companies that develop them, consider upgrading to my premium service, TransTech Alert. It not only gives you a monthly deep-dive analysis and portfolio review, but a weekly update of the latest news from the companies we follow.)
What strikes me about all these rapidly developing discoveries is that many fit together like pieces of a complex puzzle. There are people who would prefer that we focus solely on more short-term goals, but the comments by George Church have probably eliminated that option.
(*Disclosure: The editors or principals of Mauldin Economics have a position in this security. They have no plans to sell their position at this time. There is an ethics policy in place that specifies subscribers must receive advance notice should the editors or principals intend to sell.)
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