In what they are claiming is a world first, biotech company BioViva has announced that they have used gene therapy to lengthen the caps on the end of DNA – known as telomeres – in the CEO of their company, Elizabeth Parrish.
Implicated in the aging process, telomeres protect the DNA. BioViva claims that their experimental treatments that were given to Parrish over a year ago, used initially against loss of muscle mass and stem cell depletion, have had the result instead of increasing the lengths of the telomeres in her white blood cells. Others are highly skeptical.
Telomeres are found on the ends of each chromosome, which contain all the genetic information that codes for the organism, and protect the DNA from natural wear and tear. Think of them as the little bit of plastic on the end of shoelaces that prevent them from becoming unraveled. As a cell divides and the chromosomes are copied, a little bit gets shaved off each telomere meaning that as you age, they get shorter and shorter until they reach a critical length and the cell stops dividing or dies.
BioViva CEO Elizabeth Parrish claims that the gene therapy she received successfully lengthened her telomeres. 10,000x/YouTube
These caps and their shortening have been variously linked to aging and disease, and so the theory goes that if you can prevent, or somehow reverse this, it could also prevent the aging process. This is not as extraordinary as it sounds, as something to this effect has already been managed on human cells cultured in the laboratory. One team at Stanford University Medical Center, for example, introduced a modified type of RNA, which they engineered to extend the telomeres. They successfully managed to get the RNA to reverse the shortening of telomeres in skin cells, allowing them to divide more than 40 times more than untreated cells.
This method, however, is only designed to help extend the life of cultured human cells used in drug testing or disease modeling, and after a few days the protective effect wore off. This new announcement from BioViva claims to have made the leap from petri dish to human, saying that they have managed to lengthen the telomeres in Parrish’s white blood cells. Unable to conduct the treatment in the U.S., Parrish flew to Colombia to get it done, adding to the murky circumstances surrounding the therapy, of which no other details seem to have been released.
Without a published study or independent verification, a sample size of one – and that one being the CEO of the company in question and not in a clinical trial – it is impossible to say whether or not they have actually achieved this. It may simply be some form of PR campaign or, as others have put it, “a new low in medical quackery.” Self-experimentation is not unheard of, with some who undertake it even going on to win a Nobel Prize, but that comes with hard data and evidence. Both are so far lacking here.
The researchers over at BioViva are saying that they will now continue to test Parrish for potentially years to come, though some have already hit out against the experiment, and even members of the company’s own scientific advisory board have distanced themselves from Parrish and the experiment. It waits to be seen if any other information about the procedure is released by BioViva, and whether that will stand up to scrutiny.