By Dr. Mercola
Since time immemorial, man has searched for the Fountain of Youth. Nothing has changed in that regard, but the methods of inquiry and discovery have certainly progressed.
Some of these ideas rival even the most outlandish sci-fi scenarios imaginable, up to and including the transfer of your consciousness into a bionic body.1 Personally, I don’t want to veer too far from the natural order of things.
But the technology and science enthusiast in me can’t help but be intrigued by the ideas and radical advances in the field of extreme life extension. One of the most promising techniques in this field, from my perspective, revolves around the use of adult stem cells.
Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells found throughout your body. They multiply and replace cells as needed, in order to regenerate damaged tissues. Their value, in terms of anti-aging and life extension, centers around their ability to self-renew indefinitely, and their ability to generate every type of cell needed for the organ from which it originates.
Dr. Bryant Villeponteau, author of Decoding Longevity, is a leading researcher in novel anti-aging therapies involving stem cells. He’s been a pioneer in this area for over three decades.
Personally, I believe that stem cell technology could have a dramatic influence on our ability to live longer and replace some of our failing parts, which is the inevitable result of the aging process. With an interest in aging and longevity, Dr. Villeponteau started out by studying developmental biology.
“If we could understand development, we could understand aging,” he says.
Later, his interest turned more toward the gene regulation aspects. While working as a professor at the University of Michigan at the Institute of Gerontology, he received, and accepted, a job offer from Geron Corporation—a Bay Area startup, in the early ‘90s.
“They were working on telomerase, which I was pretty excited about at the time. I joined them when they first started,” he says. “We had an all-out engagement there to clone human telomerase. It had been cloned in other animals but not in humans or mammals.”
What Is Telomerase?
Your body is made up of 10 trillion cells, each of which contains a nucleus. Inside the nucleus are the chromosomes that contain your genes. The chromosome is made up of two “arms,” and each arm contains a single molecule DNA, which is essentially a string of beads made up of units called bases.
A typical DNA molecule is about 100 million bases long. It’s curled up like slinky, extending from one end of the chromosome to the other. At the very tip of each arm of the chromosome is what’s called a telomere.
If you were to unravel the tip of the chromosome, a telomere is about 15,000 bases long at the moment of conception in the womb. Immediately after conception, your cells begin to divide, and your telomeres begin to shorten each time the cell divides. Once your telomeres have been reduced to about 5,000 bases, you essentially die of old age.
Telomerase is an enzyme that is involved in repairing the ends of the chromosomes, i.e. the telomere, thereby preventing it from shortening.
“What you have to know about telomerase is that it’s only on in embryonic cells. In adult cells, it’s totally, for the most part, turned off, with the exception of adult stem cells,” Dr. Villeponteau explains. “Adult stem cells have some telomerase – not full and not like the embryonic stem cells, but they do have some telomerase activity.”
What’s So Great About Stem Cells?
At Geron, Dr. Villeponteau worked on a program to isolate human telomerase. They were the first industrial lab to do so, and successfully at that. The founder of Geron was Michael West—now known for his pioneering work with embryonic stem cells. In ’94-‘95, West began searching for another product to add to Geron’s arsenal besides telomerase. He honed in on stem cells, recognizing their incredible potential for turning regeneration of body tissues into a practical reality.
“He identified several groups that were working on the isolation of human stem cells,” Dr. Villeponteau says. “He put together a collaborative agreement with these people and part-funding from Geron. That bore fruit later in the ‘90s. That’s how Geron became both the telomerase and the stem cell king – it was because of that early support of the stem cell research. They had lines of stem cell, embryonic stem cells, before anybody else did.
I was involved in a lot of that initial research. But what I came away with was that these embryonic stem cells, as good as they were, had problems too. Because you had to isolate them, you had to grow them, and then you had to put them into a foreign body, if they were going to be useful. That means you have to worry about immunity, because it’s a different type of somebody else’s cells. That was a problem.
The other problem was that it was not that easy and straightforward to differentiate these embryonic stem cells the way you want them. I started to be more interested at that point in adult stem cells.”
Most of the research currently being done, both in academia and industrial labs, revolves around either embryonic stem cells, or a second type called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). Dr. Villeponteau, on the other hand, believes adult stem cells are the easiest and most efficient way to achieve results.
That said, adult stem cells do have their drawbacks. While they’re your own cells, which eliminates the problem of immune-related issues, there’s just not enough of them. Especially as you get older, there are fewer and fewer adult stem cells, and they tend to become increasingly dysfunctional too. Yet another hurdle is that they don’t form the tissues that they need to form...
To solve such issues, Dr. Villeponteau has created a company with the technology and expertise to amplify your adult stem cells a million-fold or more, while still maintaining their ability to differentiate all the different cell types, and without causing the cells to age. Again, it is the adult stem cell’s ability to potentially cure, or at least ameliorate, many of our age-related diseases by regenerating tissue that makes this field so exciting.
The Case Against Telomerase for Life Extension
I was initially intrigued with the principles of using telomerase to potentially extend human lifespan. But in talking to a few other clinicians, I became aware that using a generic process to influence the entire body raises potentially serious concerns. Dr. Villeponteau’s amplification process of human adult stem cells, however, appears to bypass such concerns as it’s targeted to one cell type. He explains:
“Here’s the issue: I think, with telomerase activation systemically, it probably doesn’t do much good, because 99 percent of your cells are not going to be affected, nor should they be. You don’t even want them to be, because the somatic cells in the body, the cells that do all the work – muscle, nerves, and all of that – have a natural lifespan. Maybe you can do certain things to extend [their lifespan] a little bit. But you’re going to do only a little on the margins. They’re going to be dying and they have to be regenerated. There has to be a regeneration process.
They used to think that certain tissues like the brain and heart muscle didn’t have any stem cells; didn’t have any new growth. That’s not true. Now we’ve found that they do have them. In the case of neuro [brain cells], it is very important for memory that you have this capability. I think where the telomerase activation really helps, even taken systemically, is in the stem cell compartment because it would help with your own stem cells.
We have a product that we’ve been selling commercially... to stimulate stem cell growth and maintenance of the stem cells, and telomere function is part of it... [A]ging itself and stem cells are multi-faceted and multi-pathway. You really have to attack it from different pathways. There’s no magic bullet in its treatment. You have to get in multiple ways, because aging is a process that [involves] multiple pathways.”
An Example of How Adult Stem Cells Work
Dr. Villeponteau uses skin as an example to illustrate the potential benefits of adult stem cells, as your skin can be used as a cosmetic “guidepost” for how old you are. As you get older, your skin starts to thin and lose its elasticity. This is what causes your skin to wrinkle and sag. Now, your skin is constantly renewing itself; shedding old cells as new cells are created underneath. Adult stem cells are responsible for these new skin cells being born.
As mentioned earlier, with age, your adult stem cells are reduced in number. They also become increasingly dysfunctional. As a result, the turnover in your skin slows down by about half. If you were able to keep the regeneration of skin tissue at more youthful levels by the addition of adult stem cells, you’d be able to maintain youthful-looking skin longer. While this may sound too good to be true, Dr. Villeponteau points to experimental and practical evidence showing that body organs can be repaired using this technology. As for stopping the clock on general aging, however, the results are less clear.
“For general aging, are we going to be able to replace your stem cells by, let’s say, IV? We don’t know how much good we can do. But there has been one rat experiment that’s been done. They were able to extend the lifespan by adding IV stem cell population,” he says.
Three Different Types of Stem Cells
There are three major types of stem cell populations, each with their own set of pros and cons:
- Embryonic stem cells. As the name implies, embryonic stem cells come from human embryos. Ethical issues have been raised with respects to the use of embryonic stem cells, as you have to destroy the embryo in order to collect the stem cells.
While potent, their immaturity also poses problems. It’s difficult to program them to develop into later-stage tissues. It’s also difficult to find a way for them to form the specific tissue types that you want, because they’re further removed from those individual tissues – say, liver, brain, or muscle tissue. Embryonic stem cells also have cancer potential because they form keratomas, although that’s rare. And, since they are not your own cells, they may cause an immune reaction.
- Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). These cells, discovered in 2008, have caused great excitement among scientists. These cells can take a fibroblast (a type of cell) from virtually any part of your body, and transfect it with, or put in, four different genes that are known to be important for stem cell function. This converts the original cell into what amounts to an embryonic stem cell—your embryonic stem cell.
However, this too has its problems. On the upside, it eliminates the issue of an immune reaction, since it’s your own cells. But it still has the potential to promote tumor growth. As explained by Dr. Villeponteau, whenever you insert genes into a genome, you run the risk of putting it near a cancer gene, thereby generating cancer. There are also difficulties in being able to differentiate them into the various tissues you might need. Still, it’s an exciting area where lots of research is being done.
“Very recently, there was one group that was able to take, I think, seven chemical drugs and convert a small proportion of the fibroblast into these iPS cells—doing it just chemically and not using any genes. Of course, that’s much safer. But we don’t know the full impact of what that’s going to mean yet,” Dr. Villeponteau says.
- Adult stem cells. On the upside, they don’t have the immunity problem because it’s your own cells. This also eliminates any ethical problem. So far, they do not appear to pose a cancer risk, which is another major advantage. The disadvantage is that they’re difficult to grow and that there aren’t enough of them to be effective. It would be a game changer if you could amplify their numbers, and this is precisely the key component that Dr. Villeponteau is working on. So far, they’ve developed the media, and a procedure that looks promising, through which adult stem cells could be multiplied. He believes it might be one to two years, however, before the principle can be proven.
How Stem Cells Are Currently Used
In the US, it’s illegal to take out a cell, amplify it, and then put it back into the human body. The FDA considers that as a drug. However, it is legal to take bone marrow, for example, and isolate the stem cells. As long as you don’t treat the cells with any kind of drug, or try to grow them, you can then legally put them back in, in a purified, concentrated form. Such treatments already exist, both in the US and abroad.
One of the most common treatments using isolated adult stem cells is for knee injuries. According to Dr. Villeponteau, they’re achieving very good results doing that, and many are actually cured. Adult stem cell therapy has also been successfully used in people with back problems, and it appears particularly effective for joint problems and bone growth. Dr. Villeponteau even used adult stem cells to treat bone loss around one of his front teeth, with good results.
He also believes it could be successfully used in the treatment of diabetes, and for recreating the human pancreas and perhaps even the heart. Another area he believes will eventually benefit from adult stem cell technology is in the general reconditioning of your circulatory system—your arteries, veins and capillaries. Autoimmune diseases and multiple sclerosis (MS) may also benefit. At present, there’s a doctor in Utah who claims to be using adult stem cells on stroke patients; successfully regenerating brain function. Stem cells have also been used in cancer patients for the past two decades.
“Cancer patients, if they get high levels of radiation to kill off the cancer, it also kills off blood-forming stem cells. What they’ve been doing in some places, for 20 years now, is to take a sample of your bone marrow and then replace it after the chemotherapy or the radiation therapy to regrow your immune system quickly. They can do that several times. That allows you to go to a much higher dosage of radiation that you would otherwise not be able to survive.”
Another novel technology that also makes use of stem cells is 3D-printing architecture, where iPS cells or embryonic stem cells (not adult stem cells) are used to recreate an organ using a 3D printer. This too is something straight out of a science fiction movie, but it does work, and it’s legal. They’ve successfully replicated an esophagus for example, as well as human ears. It’s really only a matter of time before they figure out how to replicate more complex organs, such as kidneys, pancreas, livers and hearts using this technology.
When I think about aggressive future efforts to reverse the aging process, nanotech comes to mind. In talking to Dr. Villeponteau, I believe the technology he’s working on is akin to biological nanotech. Rather than creating synthetic nanobots to repair tissues, it would seem far wiser to focus on the already intrinsic intelligence of the human body, which already knows how to use adult stem cells to perform such tasks.
There’s no telling how long it will take for this kind of technology to be perfected, but research is certainly moving ahead at near-breakneck speed. Dr. Villeponteau believes adult stem cells are the fastest way to make some real headway in the areas of cellular regeneration and life extension.
Until then, you can certainly add many years, likely decades, to your life simply by eating right, exercising (which promotes the production of muscle stem cells, by the way) and living an otherwise clean and healthy lifestyle. Extreme life extension, on the other hand, is a different matter.
“I think you can add 20 years to your life now if you eat right, take the right supplements, and exercise. You’d delay diseases, but that’s all you’re going to get. You’re not going to get extreme changes. To do that, you need real science,” he says.
Dr. Villeponteau’s book, Decoding Longevity, covers preventive strategies to prolong your life, mainly diet, exercise, and supplements—although he admittedly also includes some drugs. A portion of the book also covers future developments in the area of more radical life extension, such as stem cell technology. To keep abreast of advancements in this area, you can check out his company website at www.centagen.com.