First Human Undergoes a Genetic Engineering Treatment to Reverse Aging

Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.

BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.

I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.

I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. Image originally from BioViva.

Are They for Real?

After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?

While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.

The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.

That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.

“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.

The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.

In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”

And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?

“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”

The Future of Aging

So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.

“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”

This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.

Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”

This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.

Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”

As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”

Conclusion

It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.

The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”

Smarter, stronger, faster… and younger?

Sign me in.

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Featured image at top of article is originally from Flickr user Arileu 

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Gene-edited Micro-Pigs about to become Pets

Can you recognize where the following paragraph is from?

Hammond was flamboyant, a born showman, and… had an elephant that he carried around with him in a little cage. The elephant was nine inches high and a foot long, and perfectly formed, except his tusks were stunted. Hammond took the elephant with him to fund-raising meetings. Gennaro usually carried it into the room, the cage covered with a little blanket, like a tea cozy, and Hammond would give his usual speech about the prospects for developing what he called “consumer biologicals.” Then, at the dramatic moment, Hammond would whip away the blanket to reveal the elephant. And he would ask for money.

 

The story of Hammond and his miniature elephant (supposedly genetically engineered) appears in the opening pages of the book Jurassic Park. Ever since I read Jurassic Park in my teens, this is the paragraph that got stuck in my mind. After all, ravenous dinosaurs eating people is neat and everything, but having a tiny elephant living in your house, and showing it to your friends every time they drop by? Now that’s priceless – and definitely an idea I could relate to.

As it turns out, this dream is actually coming to fruition nowadays, with a Chinese prestigious institute announcing its intention to sell genetically engineered micro-pigs. Which, I guess, are a good substitute for a micro-elephant… at least for now.

The micro-pigs in question were engineered in a way that disabled their normal production of growth hormones, leading to the creation of a ‘dwarf’ pig. Their original purpose was to be used in medical studies of dwarfism and other metabolic disorders, since pigs are often used as models for human diseases. However, when they were revealed to the public at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China one week ago, they stole the show.

“We had a bigger crowd than anyone,” said Lars Bolund, who took part in the pigengeering project, in an interview to Scientific American. “People were attached to them. Everyone wanted to hold them.”

Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog
Micro-pigs caused an uproar in the Biomedical Summit in China. Image originally from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

The enthusiasm should not really have been surprising. There’s been a pig-pet craze for the past few decades, which scrupulous breeders have taken advantage of by selling “teacup pigs” – tiny piglets which were supposed to remain small through adulthood. As it turned out, many such piglets grew to weigh 100 – 150 pounds, forcing their owners to give the massive beasts up.

The micro-pigs should be relatively safe to purchase, and quite simply cannot reach a weigh of more than 15 kilograms, or more than the size of a medium-sized dog. That’s in their DNA – the genetic program that instructs their body on its final shape and size. The BGI Chinese institute is planning to sell them at $1,600 – and I won’t be surprised if the first batch will be snatched up within days by the rich and the famous who will be looking for new ways to demonstrate their… well, richness and fame.

But the really interesting question for me is: what will be the next genetically-engineered animal to make it to households as pet?

Dragon to Newt

The first (and possibly easiest to perform) kind of genetic engineering for household pets will be downsizing. As the BGI institute researchers have shown, you just need to disable the production of growth hormones in the animal to do that – a relatively easy task. Which animals will be downsized, then?

Endangered or threatened species will probably not be on the list, since the researchers need a mature female to give birth to the engineered baby-animal. Also, many large mammals have an extremely long pregnancies, which might make the venture unprofitable. So – I’m probably not going to enjoy my micro-elephant or micro-rhinoceros anytime soon.

If I had to bet on the animal of choice, my money would probably be on micro-crocodiles. The Nile crocodile is nowhere near endangered, and the female lays an average of fifty eggs, which hatch in three months. Baby crocodiles are already cute enough that some people will adopt them, with the obvious result of having to face a full-blown crocodile in the bathroom two years later. But what if they’re engineered to never grow any larger? I would probably chip in for a pet like that. A miniature horse or stag – if you just bring them down to the size of a house cat – wouldn’t hurt either.

Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets? Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest - user Jessica Curzon
Will micro-crocodiles be our next pets?
Image of a baby crocodile taken from Pinterest – user Jessica Curzon

Glow in the Dark

“Glow in the dark animals” are already quite common in labs around the world. They’re being used for medical studies, but somehow have never found their way to the consumer market. The answer has a lot to do with the psychology of the consumer, but I would wager a guess that we just don’t like glow-in-the-dark cats or dogs. And why should we? The glow is mostly revealed only under UV light, and in any case – it would just make the animals frightening to behold.

The only case in which glowing animals became a success was with aquarium fish (GloFish) that were the recipients of a jellyfish gene causing them to slow in the dark. Those fish are quite beautiful, but they grow only in the extremely secure and limited environment of the fish tank. Not really interesting, to be honest.

GloFish as our "glow in the dark" pets. Image originally from the GloFish site
GloFish as our “glow in the dark” pets. Image originally from the GloFish site

Cats Just Want to have Fun

Ragdoll cats are known as the most gentle and non-aggressive of all cats. They were bred specifically to be that way, and are a hit among adults and children who love the way cats look – but not the scars they leave on the skin.

Since we are beginning to identify genes that influence behavior and aggression in animals, why not use genetic engineering to bring some really ferocious animals to our houses?

I know that I wrote earlier against the engineering of endangered animals, but just consider: wouldn’t you like a full-sized tiger that is – quite literally – gentler than a kitten? Or how about a fun-loving shark in the swimming pool?

While these are probably extreme examples (you still have to feed these animals with tons of raw meat!), I think we can agree that smaller animals, like a people-loving raccoon, or a truly affectionate snake that likes to cuddle, could be a real hit.

Can We Stop GE-Pets?

By now you’re probably asking yourself if we can stop the technology from coming to fruition and delivering GE-pets to our doorsteps. It is extremely unlikely that the process will stop in any way, because of several reasons –

  • Globalization: if GE-pets are banned in one country, they’ll be engineered in another country like China. When their safety is demonstrated over time, they’ll spread around;
  • Powerful and cheap GE techniques: novel genetic engineering techniques are becoming rapidly cheaper and more powerful, which means that many private companies will soon start dabbling with synthetic biology. Even the venerable Bill Gates recently mentioned that if he were a kid today – he would be hacking biology. Governments will find it increasingly more difficult to stop these new companies from delivering their products to the market.
  • Eventual spread: let’s say you own a micro-pig, and your friend raises her own micro-pig. You like her, she likes you, and your micro-pigs like each other. What do you think will happen next? You could enjoy a litter of micro-pigs within less than a year, which you will give to your neighbors, whether they like them or not. Of course, most GE-pets will also be engineered to be sterile (companies have to protect their business investment, after all), but others will be fertile, and you can be sure that they’ll breed and spread throughout the land.

Conclusion

We are now at the beginning of a fascinating and exciting age: the age of synthetic biology, when animals could be molded according to our wishes. Obviously, we gain an enormous power over nature that way – but is it any different from raising animals in farms and stables? I’m not so sure. I also don’t see much of a danger to bio-diversity in the short-term, since the animals we will engineer for our needs will be hard-pressed to survive in nature (good luck to that micro-crocodile, or cuddling snake when they have to survive outside the house).

I’ll be waiting for my micro-crocodile to arrive sometime in this decade or the next.

And what would you kids like to get for Christmas?

A School Is Engineering Children’s Brains with Electrical Current

Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”

After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?

Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.

The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.

Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.jpg
An illustration depicting the magnetic field being operated on a human brain.

But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).

You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.

 

This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.

A child using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Is this the new form of learning? Image originally from a blog post in Scientific American, by Gary Stix.

The Age of Brain Engineering

There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?

The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)

Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?

Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?

You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.

Tattoos, replacement limbs and body modifications – oh my!

Maggie had never worn shorts around her parents. She had a secret she never wanted them to find out about: under her clothes, her body is covered in secret tattoos. The tattoos range in size and shape, from a tiny cross-shaped drawing on her hip, to a large one covering her entire side, depicting a colorful heart with the words MOM and DAD etched above it.

Many people would view Maggie’s body and skin as beautiful, but her parents are conservative Christian folks. Maggie believes they consider tattooed people as people “…who probably dabble in drugs”. Nonetheless, when she decided to reveal her painted body to her parents, she found out to her great surprise that they accepted her, and that they had no problem with her tattoos.

When Norms Change

As Maggie’s story demonstrates, the public acceptance of tattoos in America has undergone a sharp change over the past fifteen years. In 1936, Life magazine assessed that only 6% of Americans had a tattoo. Today, the total percentage of American individuals who have at least one tattoo has more than doubled itself to 14%, and of all American adults aged 26 – 40, a whopping 40% are tattooed. That’s basically almost half of all the population at that age category.

Why are tattoos gaining in popularity all of a sudden? Nobody really knows. Some academics, like Anne Velliquette, believe that people use tattoos to adhere to a certain aspect of themselves that exists in the moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Vellinquette describes our current society as chaotic and fragmented, leading people to look for anchors to feelings and states of mind that will never go away.

Whether the explanation is right or wrong, the acceptance of tattoos in society demonstrates how quickly the horrors of the previous generation can become the norms of the present one. So here’s an interesting and entertaining question for us to consider: what body modifications that we view with horror today, will our children consider to be absolutely normal, and possibly even necessary for the expression of the self?

The list of possible body modifications can be quite large. It includes tattoos, ear stretching, horn implants, changing iris color, changing the color of your skin, and even implanting magnets under your skin, and hanging electric appliances on them. If you feel sure that one of these (or another which I haven’t mentioned) is going to become widespread in the future, feel free to say so in the comment section. In the meantime, I’d like to highlight just one category of body modification that has never been applied to a healthy human body so far – but may become a reality within the next few decades.

Replacement Limbs

You walk into a body modification parlor. All around you are samples of the art that you can graft onto your body: from colorful tattoos, to small horns to be implanted on the forehead. After spending a long time staring at the possibilities in front of you, you finally select one.

“I’ll take this robotic hand.” You tell the modification artist. He explains to you, slowly and carefully, that to graft the hand onto your arm he would have to remove your biological, original hand, fingers and all. You just shrug. The biological hand you currently possess has way too many tattoos on it anyway, of past memories you’d rather forget.

This scenario is obviously quite detached from the present, in which every kind of surgical intrusion into the body is considered taboo without a good medical reason. However, the taboo is there for a very specific reason: to protect people from undergoing medical procedures that could expose them to infections. According to the CDC, even if you’re being treated in the most sterilized surgery rooms in the world there’s still a chance of somewhere between 1.9% and 3% for infection.

Let us assume that medicine is about to experience exponential development in the next few decades – an assumption that is very hard to dispute, but which is a topic for another blog post. Such exponential development would result in a society in which infections are a thing of the past, body parts are being grown in vats or printed fully, and robotic prostheses can be implanted onto the body and complement it just as well as our biological limbs do.

There are hints that this future is starting to become true. The most sophisticated prostheses currently are probably made and programmed by Hugh Herr – a professor in the MIT Media Lab, who is also a double amputee by himself. He has designed his own bionic legs and feet, and changes them as though they were fashion items, in order to become taller, shorter or more fitting for mountain hiking. His bionic legs are sophisticated enough that people can actually use them to dance, as though they were real limbs.


Prostheses that are also forms of art start making their way into the public awareness. Models with bionic arms walk the runways at top fashion events, and they no longer bother using a look-alike prosthesis. Instead, they opt for prostheses that – like tattoos – have a deeper meaning. The Alternative Limb Project actually produces prostheses that look intentionally bizarre and extraordinary. And while such prostheses must be extremely expensive, the Makers Movement is starting to 3-D print fully functional prostheses for a few hundred dollars. Some of those ‘house-made’ prostheses will doubtless be drab and grey; others will be as individual as can be, and will come in the shape of robot arms, animal arms, arms with drawings (tattoos?) on them, and many other variations.

An alternative prosthetic arm, that includes snakes going through it. According to the wearer, Jo-Jo Cranfield, “My alternative limb is so different to any other prosthetic limb I have ever had. I wear it with pride. I’ve never seen a two armed person with snakes crawling into their skin, and even if I did I don’t think it would be so comfy! My alternative arm makes me feel powerful, different and sexy!” Credits: the arm was created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and fitted at Queen Mary’s Hospital The make-up artist for the picture was Gemma Fee, and the photograph was taken by Rosemary Williams. The picture (and many others like it) can be found at the Alternative Limb Project site.

Considering the need for prostheses in society, and the advances in technology, it is clear that we are going to see many more amputees going around with robotic or static limbs that will better reflect their character, occupations and needs. Will we ever reach a state when healthy people actually ask to remove their limbs and replace them with alternative ones? That will take some time, but ultimately I cannot see a good reason against such a social development.

The Impassible Barrier?

At this point you may be asking yourselves: where do we stop? Are there kinds of bodily modifications that society will shun forever? The fact of the matter is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the beholder is part of a larger social construct than herself. Tribal societies throughout the world have come to the conclusion that stretched ears are beautiful, or that scrotal implants (be careful: after I Googled that one up, I got some really weird ads in my browser) look sexy. Western society seems to be going with tattoos right now, and with unnecessary enlargement of women’s mammary glands by way of breast implant. So yeah, we are definitely up for altering and modifying the human body. The only question is how, and when.

Considering all of the above, who is to say that stretched ears, or alternative prostheses, won’t become part of our future? Bodily modification has been part of all societies so far, and it is only expanding. The current generation will always be disgusted, repulsed and visibly shaken by novel changes to the human body. And the next generation? They’ll consider those changes perfectly normal.

One thing for certain: the future of the human body is going to be much more colorful, vibrant and heterogeneous than it is today.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait for the future to come.