Gene therapies to reverse human aging – Interview with entrepreneur Elizabeth Parrish

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 diseases of aging. Liz is currently experimenting 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.

The Context

Gabriel Licina is an american biohacker and he 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 coming down there to Chile next month to be a mentor of 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, and the first thing I was very curious about in order to understand the context of her work was the fact that 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. As we also decided to base Exosphere outside of the US and specifically in Latin America, I asked about the reasons of this choice.

Why didn’t you make your first experiment in the US, and instead in Latin America?

“We did it to be very careful, as a company owner I actually probably could have taken my experiment in the US, but we wanted to ensure that there were no issue with the staff that gave the therapeutics. We are maintaining secret about the exact location and staff that was there on site, and we will keep it that way until next summer when I believe the documentary that was taken by the filming group will come out. And at that point we hope to have some definitive result, and data is king. So until we know that the results are good, obviously we want to protect those who have anything to do with it. It was definetely my choice, I feel it’s a human right to be able to do with your body whatever you want and that you should be able to pay a medical doctor to do it in the safest way possible.

In the US there are a lot of laws and legalities that can block people from access to therapeutics and to treating their body with 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 for the disease that you are trying to treat 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 the disease.

Right now what we are trying to do is to wait for the initial result and would like to move forward with investor and go into probably Mexico, because we seem to have the most support there, and start running the first clinical trial: 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, 5 to 10 persons, and the second one through telomerase induction to cure alzheimer to see if it could actually help patient by reversing the aging of the cells in the brain, and of course the by-product of that would be that they start to clean up the symptoms of alzheimer like the beta-amyloid and the tau tangles, but what we are going for is to make useful cells in the brain and see if therefore it will 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 get american patients to go down there and be part of trials, for people with alzheimer is difficult for example to travel long distances.

On the other side, what we need in a country is investment dollars and infrastructure with 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 as we have people interested helping us there, and it’s a standard place for clinical trials even for the biggest US pharmaceutical companies. But 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, and we can have an insurance on their safety, we would like to have customers outside of the clinical trials.

The first country that will allow us will be very very wealthy! (laughs), because we don’t even have to charge a lot. If we are sitting on genomic cure for disease we want to bring the cost down so that anyone can afford it, and have people flying into the country where they are allowed to get those treatments.”

The Science

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 most basic data of safety: that 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 genomically appearing 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 we put the human gene that we want them to put into your cell.


So they cannot get you sick, and they cannot make more virus, but what they can do it deliver a human gene to your nucleus, and then it starts making the protein that you need in order to be stronger, more youthful, in the future smarter, more visually accurate, things like that. So in a way is very simple science, because we are not taking molecules, having you eat them and having them go somewhere in your body and creating some off effect. What we are doing is just delivering the gene to your cell, that 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 skins, hormons, everything about you.”

The two therapies

The myostatin inhibitor

“We inject that 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 what myostatin does is that it inhibits muscular 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. So we block myostatin and therefore your muscles grow.

The benefit is not just larger muscles, it increases insulin sensitivity and decrease white fat, and helps with stem cells signaling. Many people die looking very old even if they have very healthy stem cells in their body that just never signaled to turn on and start saving the body. So this we believe will be a multi-faceted approach to treating aging as a disease.”

Telomerase induction

“What telomerase inducers do is they create an enzyme called telomerase and it elongates the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes and that elongation does many thing, one thing is it protects the chromosome, makes it healthier, it appears to regulate p53 which is a cancer causing gene and we want to keep that gene turned off, and so in animal studies when mice have telomerase induction they reversed in aging. There were two studies — De Pihno and MA Blasco – and in De Pinho study it was evident an effect not only on the visual appearance of the mouse (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 gene goes in, 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 and target a lot more cells than what we do with myostatin inhibitor.

So these are the two therapies and together they could work beautifully. For instance if you turn on telomerase in stem cells you can have unlimited amount of stem cells that you could divide, but if the stem cells do not signal to the rest of your body there is no use, so with the myostatin inhibitor that gene therapy is targeting stem cells signaling (this is our hypothesis).”

External resource:

How long do you expect humans to be able to live thanks to these therapies? Could we live forever or there is a hard line?

“It’s unknown. Our company is vastly about mitigating aging 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 just inhuman. 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, if we are successful, our picture is for people to live until 120 years looking youthful all the way through, and therefore healthier, happier and more productive part 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.”

The Entrepreneur

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 and 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, and 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 affect anyone. Everyone had a reason to want to fund this science. While with childhood disease in industrialized countries is a much smaller percentage of the population that is affected.

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 aging we would have a massive amount 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 the longevity science, and I really thought it would be easy (laughs). I thought, everyone is gonna to 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 for childhood disease. We had some potential investors come through, who 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 and evidence that 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 that if I see a problem, I go fix it. So BioViva then was 2 more years in the making and I sorted out the most innovative persons, thinkers and medical doctors that in fact thought that it was the right thing to do, to move this medical science forward. And that’s how I created BioViva. It was to get human evidence and start saving life now.”


“So we built BioViva and pinpointed the two therapies to start with, and 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.

Really 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, upon good results.”

How do you deal with those who are fighting against you, I imagine there are a lot of people telling 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 definetely 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. I mean if you look at Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or other main leaders, they did not have the degrees in what they did for a company, so I quickly learn to laugh at critical articles that came out, also helped by the people emailing me and telling me to not be bothered because they 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 there is nothing better. 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:, we have a facebook page and soon 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 toast so we are the best company. 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.”

Oculus today, BCI tomorrow

Oculus is pretty popular now, while most people are still unaware about BCI. This technology may be next and interesting developments have been taking place lately. I myself did not know anything about this until 1 year ago..

When at the beginning of 2014 we moved our HQ from the center of Santiago de Chile to Viña del Mar, a smaller town on the pacific coast next to the famous city of Valparaiso, we had to leave a house with a longer term lease and therefore we were looking to subrent it. In March, Antonio, one of my partners, finally came back from a successful trip: he had met a group of scientists from Ukraine who were interested to rent the house short term, as their team was planning to stay no more than 6 months (the period granted for startups accepted into the Startup Chile program, check it out for free money).

“They are very particular people, they made me turn on and off a lamp with my mind. Their technology is magic. They even look like magicians, check their facebook profile!”


MindHack team picture in Santiago

This is how I was introduced for the first time to the MindHack team and this coincidence lead me to the discovery of the world of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Fastforward 1 year and a half we are working together developing services around this technology and pushing the field with through our educational platform.

BCI is a technology that permits direct communication between neuronal activity and an external device. Essentially (you can learn all you want on Wikipedia) the technology is based on the ability to read our brain activity, process the signals and send commands to external devices. For a detailed summary, I found useful this slideshare presentation:

Research and development has been primarily focused on applications that aim at restoring damaged human abilities, especially movement. Significant advances achieved in the last years lead to the possibility for people with severe disabilities to perform daily actions like drinking by controlling robotic arms with their mind. You can check the videos of Cathy Hutchinson and Jan Scheuermann.

Jan’s goal was to be able again to serve herself chocolate

As you can see, this was achievable with an invasive interface: a sensor is implanted directly inside the brain (and new interesting approaches has been recently developed). This is necessary for complex actions like moving a robotic arm (many degrees of freedom), but the BCI technology has also evolved in the direction of partially invasive or non-invasive sensors, and today it is possible to command external devices without any surgery.

You can already buy on Amazon devices that read your brain activity and play games with your mind, while in order to command robots or something else in the external world there is some additional soft- and hardware work to do. Our work is focused on this and here you can see the video of a demonstration in a chilean high school, where students were able to turn on and off light, guide a robot car, play games on an Ipad or control GoogleGlasses with their thoughts.

This technology has clearly the biggest impact for people in condition of physical disabilities. Our friends are working in Ukraine to help a woman to control her wheelchair, for example, and the US army is developing this technology to rehabilitate soldiers who come back from war without arms or legs. Or you can imagine a person with disabilities controlling their whole smart house, from the door to the coffee, from the tv to water. Or empower them to fight drone battles and win!

For people without disabilities, adopting this technology for daily actions may be more complicated than useful, but BCI is (or will be) able to solve different kind of problems for them, like safety in driving, brain-damage control for high-impact contact sports, epileptic seizure alerting, brain-fitness and concentration training, videogames, music, neuromarketing.. and maybe spaceships control (yes we are very interested in space, which is why we are doing this) and many other applications we did not think about yet (or I haven’t heard of).

One of the challenges, but very interesting side, is the learning process. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. You need to spend some time failing and practicing, until your brain creates a dedicated neuronal network. At the beginning you need 100% of your mental space to learn, but after a while you will be able to bike while drinking, talking, watching the view and so on. The same goes with these interfaces, you will be able to switch on the light, while talking to your friend and drinking a glass of water.


BCI training and presentation in Ukraine

Two interesting trends for making this technology be part of everyday life are the resolution of non invasive interfaces which has developed in a way to equal the one of invasive ones with a 10 years gap, and the fact that new innovative solutions are being developed for more user-friendly devices (an example here). The applications for this technology are so many that there is space for everyone, and the more people involved in developing the field, the better for everyone.


If you are interested in this technology, either from the scientific or entrepreneurial standpoint, I invite you to study the field and actively connect with the people already working on it inside your network. Otherwise, you can contact me at or explore connections on the Brain Computer Interfacig facebook group. If you are italian, you may want to talk to Luca Tonin from Padua at of EXiMotion (and team leader of WHi, that will participate at the Cybathlon 2016 in Zurigo).

4.4 Billions People Don’t Have The Same Privilege As You

If you’re reading this newsletter, it means that you’re on your computer or your smartphone. And reading this newsletter is probably not going to be the only thing you’re going to do on the internet today. We use internet everyday for thousands of things: email, research, social medias, news, etc… And we are so used to have it in our daily life that we often forget that it’s a privilege…


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Sleeping and Insomnia

A lot of scientific and historical researches have been made, showing that the way we sleep nowadays has not always been the case. Huh!?
Apparently, this practice of sleeping 8 hours straight didn’t exist before the 17th century. Before, humans slept in two different chunks of 3 or 4 hours, with 3 or 4 hours of awakening in the middle of the night.

And it could be the source of a common modern problem people have: insomnia!
Here you can find the article and the sources of this researches.

This is issue #5 of TTMYGH!?, a newsletter with the aim to make you go huh!? by bringing to your inbox mind-expanding content..

World Maps

If you didn’t know, TTMYGH!? is a project I’m doing together with my cousin PrimoFor this issue of TTMYGH!? we selected 6 maps, 4 of which we agreed on and 2 of which we didn’t. For these last 2 maps we added the reasons why it made us go huh!?

We both went huh!? for these..


1. China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh are 5 of the 8 most populated countries in the world and they all happen to be in the circle highlighted in the map. If you sum the population of only these 5 countries you have more than 3.2 billions people.

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How to visit Chile in 14 days

Chile is not very known, but it’s more and more becoming a dreamed place for travellers of the world. Given its unique geography the country is able to offer you all possible kinds of natural beauties. On the other hand, it’s an headache for most visitors to plan their trip because this land is so f**ing far away and long.


Recently part of my family visited me here (I’ve been living in Chile for the last 15 months) and I planned a 14 days trip to visit and touch all the extremes offered by the country: from the shocking mix of Santiago to the mistery of the Atacama Desert, from the good life of Valparaiso to the hardship of the glaciers in Patagonia.

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