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.
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.”
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.”
“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: http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com/telomerase-as-a-fountain-of-youth/
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.”
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: http://www.bioviva-science.com/, 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.”