Michael West, known as the father of regenerative medicine, gave a talk last week that historians will remember as the world’s first look at the biotechnology that changed everything forever. At the annual meeting of Mensa, he reported on the progress of regenerative medicine—from the stem cell breakthroughs that he pioneered to his current research.
West’s presentation—despite his calm understated manner—is frankly staggering. It is a roadmap to the development of a biotechnology that can cure the worst diseases and traumas. It can even reverse human aging.
Hacking into Hayflick limit
Let’s start this discussion with the title of his presentation, "Hayflick Rewound, Implications of Reversing the Aging of Human Cells." The phrase “Hayflick Rewound” refers to the Hayflick limit, which is the number of times cells can reproduce themselves.
Leonard Hayflick demonstrated in 1961 that adult cells lose telomeres, the gene sequence that holds the two halves of your DNA’s double helix together when cells divide to replicate (mitosis). As the telomere sequence is shortened, the two DNA helices can no longer rejoin correctly for replication, so it begins to malfunction and then dies.
Before the discovery of telomeres, many leading biologists believed that exterior factors caused cell aging and death. Hayflick showed that the biological clock is ticking away inside each of our cells.
Our bodies, however, have some cells that don’t age. They are known as immortal cells. These are the cells of your germline, including the sperm and ovum. Germ cells remain young even in very old people because their telomeres are constantly replenished.
Embryonic cells also share this immortal characteristic. Unlike adult cells, embryonic cells can replicate under the right conditions forever. At about the eighth week, however, embryonic cells become adult cells and the clock of aging begins to tick.
Every cell replication from that point on shortens the telomere thread of life.
Restoring immortality in adult cells
Some scientists began to question if imparting germline immortality to adult cells was possible. Initially, the scientific community rejected the possibility almost completely. Research centered instead on harnessing embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes.
Yet, a few scientists continued their work on restoring embryonic immortality and powers to adult cells, which is called pluripotency. You may have heard of Shinya Yamanaka, the Japanese scientist who won a Nobel prize in 2012 for finding, through exhaustive trial and error, four genes that can restore pluripotency to adult cells.
Few people know, however, that Michael West had already realized the power of those genes and applied for a patent on their use. West founded the pioneering stem cell company Geron and reacquired its regenerative medicine patents for his current company, BioTime. (*see disclosure below)
In the dish, my fibroblasts were converted to cells with the remarkable characteristics of embryonic stem cells. These are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and they make embryonic stem cells obsolete. Regulators, however, haven’t allowed this shift yet. My iPS cells were then engineered to become heart muscle cells, identical to those beating in my chest now… except that they are young and completely vigorous.
Regenerative powers of embryonic cells
Youth is not the only critical attribute of embryonic or iPS cells.
You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of embryos or developing fetuses. Both are recognizably human, with fingers and noses and all the other characteristics that make us homo sapiens. Most people don’t know, however, that there is a point when the embryo makes a sudden shift from embryonic to fetal status.
That happens about eight weeks after fertilization. It’s not visible. On the surface, the embryo looks exactly the same as the fetus, but the change is profound.
If some sort of injury occurs early enough in the embryonic state, complete regeneration can take place. If, for example, the embryo’s arm is severed, another one will grow.
Once the embryo has all its parts in place (including nervous system, organs, and limbs), it turns into a fetus. From then on, cells scar rather than regenerate.
Reverting embryonic status in vivo
Enormous genetic changes take place on the cellular level as the embryo becomes a fetus. This transition is critically important for scientists who want to use embryonic or iPS cells for medical therapies.
Many scientists working with stem cells don’t actually know what kind of cells they are using. Embryonic and fetal cells look exactly alike, but a cell that has just become fetal is completely changed on the genetic level—losing many of its medical properties.
West and his team, therefore, have been collecting and analyzing genetic data about this transition using thousands of cell sources, including John Mauldin’s and mine. Nobody else has seriously studied this transition or acquired a fraction of the information that BioTime has developed. And nobody knows more about this transformation than West.
This is where the story gets really, really interesting. West’s daughter once asked him for help with a school project about the Mexican salamander, a species that retains embryonic tissue regeneration capabilities throughout their lives.
Other lizards can regrow tails, but the Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum) can regrow limbs and damaged organs. By the way, these animals can be changed to adult—with the help of hormones. They then transform into an animal that bears little resemblance to the salamander found in nature.
It would enable the sort of healing seen only in science fiction stories and video games. It would restore youthful health to old cells and extend the Hayflick limit. Medicine, aging, and life spans as we know them today would change in nearly unimaginable ways.
There’s a lot more to this story. Next week, I’ll tell you how some of the world’s top experts in artificial intelligence are working with West to solve the genomic puzzles associated with iTR. I’ll also tell you why I think the arrival of this revolutionary biotechnology is inevitable. And it will be sooner than you think.
In the meantime, here’s the link to the BioTime iTR video.
(*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.)
Editor, Transformational Technology Alert
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