Tech entrepreneur seeks cure for ageing
She’s a tech entrepreneur with no medical training who’s set out to find a cure for ageing – using herself as a guinea pig. But is Elizabeth Parrish’s experiment a brave step or a self-destructive delusion?
ELIZABETH Parrish doesn’t look obviously weird. Quite the contrary: with her polished manners, and gigawatt earnestness, she could easily be a smiling corporate assassin from Silicon Valley. But if you could magically shrink yourself to the size of a bacterium’s toothbrush and poke around in her white blood cells, you’d be in for something of a shock. Elizabeth is a mutant. The first of her kind.
Her leukocytes are riddled with a virus that was custom-built to wind back her biological clock. She’s the patient zero in a highly unorthodox campaign to cure ageing itself. Her young company, BioViva, is flogging nothing less than the prospect of rejuvenation. For her admirers she’s the Christopher Columbus of the human body. To her detractors she’s its Don Quixote, or worse.
I meet Elizabeth in the London office of Weatherbys Bank, where she’s getting ready to speak at a futurology conference. She’s 47 but looks a decade younger. She’s sharp and smart as a naval cadet getting ready to go on parade. The only thing out of place is a certain brittleness. Occasionally, the sentences tumble out of her mouth in a slightly confused order, as though someone had opened the door of a cupboard that’s too full of toys. Sometimes she says things that aren’t evidently jokes and then laughs anyway, a little nervously. Nobody gets into this sort of high-risk game unless something they love is at stake. For Elizabeth, a technology entrepreneur and mother of two from an island on the outskirts of Seattle in the US, her turning point came in 2013 when her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. This is a disease that turns the patient’s body against its own pancreas and straps them into a roller coaster of lurching blood-sugar levels. The family was devastated.
“I’ll never forget that date,” Elizabeth says. “It’s like a birthday, but in a really bad way.” She was tending her son in a children’s hospital when something inside her snapped. Reading through the latest medical papers, she’d come across a host of treatments that seemed to be crowding on the brink of reality: biobanking, stem-cell therapies, genetic modification. Surely there was something her sons’ doctors could do?
“They basically just said, ‘You should consider yourself lucky your son has a manageable disease. There are kids here who are dying’,” she says. “And I was like, wait, what are they dying from? Cancer, heart problems, congenital disorders. I’ve read about all this research where in animals we’re curing those diseases. And they said, ‘Well, that’s experimental medicine. We can’t give that to people.’ And I said, ‘But you’d let them die. So what’s worse?’ And that was it.”
Elizabeth began to crisscross the globe, scarcely touching the ground as she bustled from one scientific conference to the next in search of an answer. And then, during a meeting in Cambridge, England, she found it. Behind cancer, behind diabetes, behind dementia there stood a single biological spectre: ageing. The slow, inexorable ticking of every cell in the body towards its own oblivion. If you could find a way to stop the hour hand – or even to make it turn backwards – you’d have a skeleton key to virtually every disease on the planet.
“We have hundreds of millions of people who have chronic disease today,” she says. “And I can show you my son’s blood sugar right now.” Which she proceeds to do, thrusting her smartphone suddenly into my face. I find myself staring at the glucose count of a 14-year-old boy half a world away. “Yesterday he could’ve died from a low and then he had a high that could’ve put him in a coma, and that’s a regular day,” she goes on. “There are hundreds of millions of people who have that. Today more than 100 000 people will die of ageing. It’s time to stop that.”
And so, two-and-a-half years after her son’s diagnosis, Elizabeth boarded a plane to Colombia in South America, drove to a biomedical clinic and had herself infused over several hours with what will, if her gamble pays off, turn out to be the world’s first anti-ageing gene therapy.
‘Today more than 100 000 people will die of ageing. It’s time to stop that’
GENE therapy isn’t new, and has become an awful lot less dangerous since it was blamed for the deaths of a number of cancer patients in the 1990s. The procedure, which can cost anything from £100 000 (R1,75 million) to £6 million (R105 million), involves deliberately infecting someone with a small and relatively
harmless virus that’s loaded with spools of human DNA.
But Elizabeth was taking two big steps into the unknown. The first was that there was nothing particularly wrong with her. To be sure, she was dying, but only in the same sense as the rest of us are dying. For most mainstream scientists and ethicists, fiddling with human genes in the absence of a compelling medical emergency smacks of enhancement. It goes beyond fixing typos in the book of life to trying to improve the manuscript itself.
The other risk was Elizabeth’s choice of genes. One of them, which has already been tested on six people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a genetic disorder characterised by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness), carries the instructions for blocking a protein that limits muscle growth, and looks more or less safe so far.
The second gene though had previously been used only in experiments on mice. In theory it should crank up the body’s production of an enzyme called telomerase, which replenishes the protective caps on the ends of our DNA as they erode away through the general wear and tear of ageing. The mice who got it lived 24% longer than their peers.
But telomerase is also one of the mechanisms through which cancer cells become effectively immortal. This isn’t the sort of thing you mess around with lightly. No one could say whether it would work. No one could even say whether it was safe. That was exactly the point. In Elizabeth’s view, someone had to be the first to try it: why not her?
“I knew we were sitting on a drug that could help a billion people within short order,” she says. “I wasn’t going to say no. I did all of the things. I made sure my affairs were in order just in case there was something we didn’t foresee. I told my kids I loved them. And we did it.”
Six months after Elizabeth came back from Colombia, she posted her first test scores on her company’s blog. The telomeres in her white blood cells had apparently grown 9% longer. This was, she announced, the equivalent of turning back 20 years of ageing. “When the first results came through,” she says, “I called my chief technology officer at four o’clock in the morning and said, ‘We just took the first swing at defeating death’.”
A year later there was another flurry of findings. MRI scans showed cross-sections of her thigh muscles turning from prosciutto-like blobs marbled with fat into lean steaks, supposedly without any exercise regime to speak of. Her fasting blood sugar was down 17%. Her triglyceride levels had halved and her inflammation markers had all but vanished.
“I don’t know what feeling younger means, because we feel right in the moment,” she says. “But I’m more physically equipped. I definitely sleep better. One thing I can say that my friends have noticed: my hair is really thick. I think it might even be thicker than when I was young.”
On the strength of these results, BioViva is courting rich people who want to buy experimental anti-ageing genes either for themselves or their ailing family members. For a few hundred thousand dollars, they’ll get a series of consultations with doctors on US soil, and then fly out to a clinic in a less heavily regulated country in Central or South America. Something like 6 000 biological and psychiatric measurements of their progress will be anonymised, analysed and posted on the internet. The company claims already to have a dozen or so patients with Alzheimer’s disease on its roster. It’s planning to extend the gene therapy to cats and dogs.
MORE than half a century ago, during the production of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick asked his minions to imagine what the headlines of The New York Times might look like at the dawn of the new millennium. “Medicine: how much further the age limit?” one of them suggested. “Are 125 years enough?”
The optimism was cruelly misplaced. The average life expectancy in South Africa is currently 64 years – up from 53 years a year ago, thanks to the rollout of antiretroviral treatment. But the march of progress is grinding to a halt across the developed world. Life expectancy in the US has actually declined slightly for two years in a row and is currently at 78 years. The result is one of the angriest culture wars in modern science. On the one side is boring old evidence-based medicine, which has got us to the current expectancy rates. And on the other is a colourful and sometimes religiously zealous movement that regards death as an embarrassment and eternal life as a basic human right. These are the transhumanists. Some of them take daily handfuls of mysterious pills or starve themselves for half a week at a time in the hope of cheating senescence.
Their prophet-in-chief is Ray Kurzweil, Google’s head futurologist, who recently predicted that our species would achieve immortality by 2029. The technology giant has launched a secretive spin-off project called Calico (short for California Life Company) to develop anti-ageing therapies. Meanwhile British mathematician and biologist Aubrey de Grey confidently states that the first person who’ll live for 1 000 years has already been born.
Members of the radical life-extension community point out that we can quadruple the lifespans of mice and increase those of a kind of microscopic worm by a factor of 10 with a few tweaks to their genes. They count several pretty respectable scientists among their allies. George M Church, a pioneering Harvard geneticist who’s trying to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction, predicts that genetic engineering will have reversed the ageing process before the end of the 2020s. Craig Venter, the maverick American cartographer of the human genome, is searching 40 000 people’s DNA for the biological blueprints of longevity.
BioViva doesn’t have a laboratory to call its own. Instead, it’s monitoring a series of human experiments in the tropics, far beyond the beady gaze of US medical regulators. Elizabeth’s company has stretched virtually every rule in the book. Rather than announcing its breakthroughs in peer-reviewed scientific journals, her company splashes them on the internet.
One of her sternest critics is George Martin, professor of pathology emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, next door to her hometown. Martin was charmed by Elizabeth’s sincerity and ambition when they first met, and signed up to BioViva’s scientific advisory board. He claims he was never invited to a single meeting.
“I was shocked to learn that she’d experimented with gene therapy on herself outside of our country and therefore immediately severed all ties with the company,” Martin says. “I would never have approved such an initiative.”
But Elizabeth is sticking to her guns. In her mind, the medical establishment is choking on its own pompous conservatism. She says its aversion to risk is tantamount to negligence. People are dying every year in their tens of millions from a disease that science doesn’t recognise and won’t lift a finger to treat. Her opponents say it’s unethical to meddle with the most basic and inevitable process of life. She says it would be unethical not to.
And, to be fair, other scientists stand by her. One of them is George M Church, the woolly mammoth man. Another is Anders Sandberg, a researcher at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute and possibly the most prominent transhumanist in Britain.
“I think Liz is commendable for trying to get longevity to market and for being brave in self-experimentation,” Sandberg says. “One can argue whether her selfexperiment proves anything, but it certainly gives some data – especially about her safety; everybody has been watching her health ever since – and of course makes a very strong statement.”
Throughout my hour in Elizabeth’s magnetic but sometimes erratic company there’s a story that’s never far from the back of my mind. It’s about an Australian doctor called Barry Marshall. Back in the 1980s, Marshall got fed up of watching patient after patient fall ill with stomach ulcers, which often ballooned into an unusually nasty kind of cancer. Marshall was convinced the culprit was a bug called Helicobacter pylori, but no one would take him seriously.
So he extracted the bacterium from one of his patients, stirred it into a nourishing broth, and drank down a glass of the stuff. Three days later his breath began to reek. He vomited copiously. After eight days his stomach had turned into a handbag of inflammation. On the 14th day he decided he’d made his point and started a course of antibiotics. Nobody made the mistake of ignoring Marshall again. In 2005 he was awarded half of the Nobel Prize in physiology.
The history of science is full of brilliant cranks who took matters into their own hands. In 1900 Pierre Curie strapped a tube of radium to his arm for 10 hours in order to prove that it caused burns. This was the first glimmer of cancer radiotherapy. In 1953 Jonas Salk injected an experimental polio vaccine into his wife and three sons. It worked. Today the disease has been eradicated across the western world.
For every Barry Marshall or Pierre Curie, though, there are half a dozen charlatans and well-intentioned failures who wagered everything on a hunch and lost. Which kind of person is Elizabeth Parrish? I want to believe she’s the real thing. But every instinct I’ve acquired in my years as a science journalist is crackling with unease. I can’t make up my mind whether the tale of a self-taught mother who raised millions of dollars and took on a battalion of people with more letters before and after their names than in them is too good to be true, or too good not to be true.
After our interview, I email a dozen credible scientists working on genetics and ageing, and brace myself for the inevitable tide of criticism. When it comes though, it’s not as bruising as I expected.
The researchers certainly aren’t thrilled about the way Elizabeth conducts her business. Some of them are reluctant to give her company the time of day. The words “publicity stunt” come up more than once. “I appreciate business is business,” says Richard Faragher, professor of biogerontology at the University of Brighton. “But there’s a sliding scale from the selfless doctor who infected himself with H pylori to demonstrate its role in ulcers, to the world of quacks and hustlers. Ageing has a long history of conmen and I therefore think we have to be exceptionally scrupulous.”
Others, though, feel conflicted, or almost what you might call sympathetic. Getting hold of the money and the patients to test bold new ideas is tough. Progress can be painfully slow. Perhaps a rude kick up the bottom is precisely what the powers that be need in this case. And maybe Elizabeth is the right woman to administer it.
Elizabeth’s company has stretched virtually every rule in the book
Scientists at work in a lab that produces geneand cell-therapy drugs.
ABOVE: Six months after undergoing the therapy in 2016 changes could already be seen in Elizabeth’s white blood cells. LEFT: It’s claimed the cells looked like they belonged in the body of someone who was 20 years younger.
1 1 Biologist Aubrey de Grey believes people could soon live to the ripe old age of 1 000. 2 Google’s head futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicts humans will achieve immortality by 2029. 3 British transhumanist Anders Sandberg and American geneticist George M Church (4) admire Elizabeth’s unorthodox approach.