There is still no cure for the common birthday.–John Glenn
My birthday is coming up this month and this whole getting older thing is vastly over-rated. I know I’m not the first person to think that gravity has gotten stronger as I have gotten older–as Mark Twain famously once said, “life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”
Clearly, financing a solution to this particular market need would be the ne plus ultra of healthcare venture capital investments. Dave Barry, one of my favorite writers, once referred to this most supreme of healthcare opportunities by saying, “Thanks to modern medical advances such as antibiotics, nasal spray, and Diet Coke, it has become routine for people in the civilized world to pass the age of 40, sometimes more than once.”
In fact, there are many medical enterprises focused on reducing the effects of aging, particularly the external manifestations. In my 12 years in venture capital I have seen deals that lift faces, restore hair, whiten teeth and return boobs to their original out-of-the-box condition. These products are all designed to create the illusion of turning back time, although, of course, they do not actually set your clock to running backwards Benjamin Button-style.
But, hold your dentures, a group of scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston have discovered a scientific method of reversing the aging process, at least in mice. In other words, they were able to take mice that had been prematurely aged (probably as a result of excessive exposure to the venture capital fund-raising process) and to actually turn back their biological clocks in a manner that restored the physical manifestations of young mice, including: revitalization of dormant brain stem cells, increased functioning of key bodily organs, restoration of sense of smell, restored fertility, and a marked ability to appreciate hip hop music. Ok, that last one isn’t true, but the others are. A little bit of scientific super-juice (targeted estrogen) and these Harvard-educated laboratory mice transformed from Mickey Mouse to Speedy Gonzales.
In a report posted online by the journal Nature in advance of print publication of the full article, researchers led by Ronald A. DePinho, MD, said they achieved the milestone in aging science by engineering mice with a controllable telomerase gene. According to the article, the telomerase enzyme maintains the protective caps called telomeres that shield the ends of chromosomes so that the genes inside them don’t unravel.
The article also explains that reduced telomerase results in loss of telomeres, which sends a cascade of signals that cause cells to stop dividing or self-destruct, stem cells to go into retirement, organs to atrophy, and brain cells to die. As humans age, low levels of telomerase are associated with progressive erosion of telomeres, which are believed to lead to tissue degeneration and functional decline as we age.
By creating mice with a switch to monitor the presence of telomerase, the researchers were able to generate prematurely aged mice, which had atrophied organs and testes, reduced brain capacity, and a host of other challenges as a result of eroded telomerase. Supposedly, the mice were the equivalent of 80-year-old humans, and the researchers said they were at death’s door (or at least heading there on their way from the 5:00 pm Early Bird special in Fort Lauderdale). The scientists then used a chemical “switch” to reactivate the telomerase in the animals to determine if that would restore their telomeres and thus mitigate the signs and symptoms of aging. And, by God, it worked! It all sounds very Dorian Gray (somewhere at Harvard there are little tiny mouse holes stacked with portraits of very old-looking mice).
According to researcher DePinho, these results may provide new avenues for regenerative medicine, because they suggest that dormant adult stem cells in severely aged tissues have the capacity for reincarnation. He stated, “If you can remove the underlying damage and stresses that drive the aging process and cause stem cells to go into growth arrest, you may be able to recruit them back into a regenerative response to rejuvenate tissues and maintain health in the aged,” he said. “Those stresses include the shortening of telomeres over time that causes cells and tissues to fail.” Well whaddya know, Cher, you can turn back time.
According to DePinho, this research is potentially promising for humans because previous research shows that people with longer telomeres in their blood cells have an increased number of healthy years beyond the age of 60. Conversely, people over the age of 60 who have the shortest telomeres display higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.
Now we’re talking. This suggests an opportunity ultimately to create products focused not on camouflaging age, but on actually reversing it, fountain of youth style. Hopefully sometime in the not-too-distant future, we venture capitalists might be seeing companies that have figured out how to productize a method for increasing telomere production coupled with a commercially viable estrogen-fueled cocktail to deliver it. No doubt we will be watching the clinical trials on a future season of the Housewives of Beverly Hills.
In his 1891 book The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.” If Wilde were still around today, he might just have a shot at achieving his goal.