Health Extension Salon yet again lit up my life with wonderment at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. As usual, there was a great crowd of lively and brilliant attendees. I got to chat with some old acquaintances and some new folks as well. I met techno optimist Kevin Russell, whose website Serious Wonder is worth consideration. Being the hip traveller that he is, he just got back from the Singularity University’s FutureMed conference down in San Diego. He promised that he would be writing it up soon. When pressed for a highlight, he mentioned something about laser surgery at the nucleus level, which sounds fascinating. So I will be looking forward to his write-up. He also pointed out that Craig Ventner has a new book on synthetic life called Life at the Speed of Light. Russell mentioned the CRISPR technique that allows for precise gene editing, which is back in the news these days. George Church was excited about CRISPR back in January at Foresight this year. So it looks like CRISPR may not be another one of these flash in the pan science blurbs that go nowhere. Let’s keep an eye on it.
Health Extension Salon founder Joe Betts-Lacroix always gives an introductory talk during which he highlights the goal of the Health Extension Salon, “to accelerate efforts toward therapies to prevent age-related diseases.” He makes a strong case that aging research needs more funding given the huge cost of age-related diseases. Joe mentioned a recent geroscience summit at the NIH to further this cause. The NIH is a vast source of research funding, but aging research only represents a tiny fraction of that pie. This summit gave the geroscience community within the NIH a chance to share some of their findings with their peers at the NIH who work in other fields. The goal was to raise interest and possibly funding for basic research into the biology of aging.
Joe also mentioned Google’s new health extension company, Calico, headed by Art Levinson of Genentech and Apple. I guess Joe was impressed when he saw Levinson at this aging research conference scribbling madly away, taking notes. Not many CEO’s do this sort of thing, so it may bode well for Calico. I had previously heard that Levinson has a vast network of connections, and now it seems that he is immersing himself in the field to learn what directions to explore firsthand. Very promising indeed.
The next Health Extension Salon will be a fundraiser held at Mithril Capital. Check healthextension.co for details. Mithril is Thiel’s vehicle for investing in middle range companies that fall between the initial startup phase and the pre-IPO. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for bright young founders in need of funding to show up and rub elbows with the well heeled hosts. Just saying.
Joe introduced Greg Fahy by playing a clip from a recent episode of Nova that features Fahy’s work in the cryopreservation of organs. Apparently Fahy was able to find an antifreeze (M22) that is nontoxic to mammals and allowed him to freeze and rethaw a functional rabbit kidney. This research could lead to organ banks in which human organs could be safely stored long-term. It seems that Alcor switched to M22 in 2005 for freezing heads, but I am not sure if they still use it. But that was just a glimpse into the polymathic Fahy’s varied work.
When Fahy took the mic, he outlined the goal of his new company, Intervene Immune, to combat immunosenescence (the crapping out of your immune system over time) by rejuvenating the thymus. The thymus is this organ behind your breastbone that is sort of a university for white blood cells. Apparently it degrades severely as you age until it basically dries up by the time you are 65. (Am I the only one who didn’t even know this about the thymus?) The immune system incompetence that results from the aged thymus shriveling up results in a lot of flu deaths. Fahy said that some think this thymus degradation is an adaptive trait since the thymus must discard most of the T-cells it educates and thus is highly energy intensive. Though he seemed to agree with Cynthia Kenyon that aging may be a programmed process.
Fahy was inspired by the work of Dr. Laura Napolitano, who showed that human growth hormone could reverse this thymic involution (shrinking of thymus with age) in AIDS patients. Now given that AIDS kills T-cells, but a regenerated thymus makes more and better T-cells, that’s a really good thing. Go Dr. Napolitano, go! Though we westerners have pills to fight AIDS pretty effectively, it’s still a huge problem in the global south, and this thymus regeneration approach might be a better solution there.
So Fahy decided to regrow his own thymus using growth hormone and DHEA. Yep. He just performed an N=1 experiment by himself, on himself. It was very difficult and expensive though. First of all, HGH (human growth hormone) blocks insulin function. So that’s a problem. Fahy figured out that DHEA counteracts this effect. He speculated that the high HGH levels in young people didn’t impact their insulin function due to high levels of DHEA. DHEA has a plethora of other beneficial side effects, so that was a win win situation. Another problem is that HGH works by stimulating IGF-1, but IGF-1 can cause cancer at high levels. So the HGH dosage must be carefully controlled to keep IGF-1 levels in range. But he figured it all out and he estimates that he was able to basically roll back the clock 25 years in terms of this thymus function. He physically regrew the organ as evidenced by MRI scans. He also showed that his level of good “naive” T-cells increased. That’s a good thing. Look it up.
Now Fahy is a super scientist who vitrifies rabbit organs by day and unlocks thymic magic by night, so definitely don’t try this at home. Sign up for his human trial instead. Intervene Immune is kicking off a Thymus Regeneration, Immunorestoration, and Insulin Mitigation Trial (TRIIM). This study is for men only, between 50-65 years old, in good health, with low cancer risk, who have not used HGH before. Contact Fahy [at] interveneimmune.com for information on how to join. If I was a little bit older, I would definitely check it out. Fahy has worked out a very rigorous protocol in which he improves upon previous protocols by Napolitano, et al. He also looks amazingly good for his age, and I have to wonder if that thymus rejuvenation hasn’t helped preserve his appearance as well.
But as amazing and exciting as the real prospect of immunorestoration is, that’s not all Fahy has in store. Killer T-Cells attack invaders. The thymus trains these T-cells to differentiate between invaders and native tissues. In autoimmune disorders such as Type-1 diabetes, this process goes astray. I guess animal studies have succeeded in taking small sections of the affected tissue, putting them into the thymus, and retraining the T-cells not to attack that tissue. (Still looking for references.) Fahy said that the same thing has been done with organ transplants in animals. So you could transplant organs without needing to knockout the immune system. Just trick the thymus into treating the transplanted organ tissue as native. This is really mind-blowing stuff. Thymic magic.
I have to extend my thanks and admiration to Joe and the Health Extension Salon team for putting on yet another inspiring and mind-expanding event. It’s really exciting to see the amazing talent being applied to these tough problems of aging. Even my persistent pessimism is disarmed by the audacity and vision of people like Greg Fahy. Aging really is a problem that can be conquered. Human suffering can be vastly reduced. Get on board people! Let’s make it happen.