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?

YOU (South Africa) - - CON­TENTS -

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.

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