Unless you are a long-time cryonicist or a surgeon, you may not have heard of BioTime before. This company, recently profiled for its innovative stem cell research in Life Extension Magazine, is best known for producing the blood-volume expander Hextend, which was initially developed by Trans Time, an early cryonics company performing ultra-profound hypothermia research. Realizing the potential for Hextend’s conventional medical applications, BioTime was formed and, as they say, the rest is history.
These days, BioTime does its best to distance itself from its early history. As documented in this 2004 WIRED magazine article, BioTime prefers to downplay its (prior) relationship with Trans Time even though the association is well documented. Furthermore, their development of products like Hextend and its modification HetaCool, which can be used as a blood substitute to allow cooling to ultra-profound hypothermic temperatures for heart and brain surgery, as well as newly-developed HetaFreeze, a cryoprotectant solution used for long-term tissue and organ preservation at sub-zero temperatures, point to their cryonics past.
But things are changing at BioTime. Under the direction of CEO Dr. Michael West, and capitalizing on the highly successful sales of Hextend and related products, the company is now heading in a new direction: regenerative medicine. Dr. West, who received his Ph.D. from Baylor College of Medicine in 1989 concentrating on the biology of cellular aging, is pushing the envelope of aging research by developing new forms of stem cells that can be used to reverse cellular aging, perhaps eventually leading to the ability to reverse aging of the entire human body.
In “Regenerative Medicine Breakthroughs: Will BioTime Reset the Clock of Aging?” (November 2008), Life Extension Magazine documents Dr. West’s mission — to understand how to make somatic (i.e., body) cells immortal and then apply this technology to the treatment of aging and aging-related diseases. BioTime is now driven by the potential for stem cell therapy to repair and regenerate organs and tissues and, if possible, to radically extend human lives.
To understand the problem of cellular aging, we must first know what happens to cells as they age. One of the most important contributions in this field was first made by Alexy Olovnikov in the early 1970s, who proposed that the DNA sequence at the ends of each chromosome (called a telomere) shortened each time a cell replicated. Once the telomeres “ran out,” the cell stopped dividing. Olovnikov also theorized that germ (i.e., reproductive) cells, whose telomeres never shorten, do not age due to the production of an “immortalizing enyzme.” Dr. West became so convinced of Olovnikov’s theory that he formed a company called Geron to investigate it further. As reported by Life Extension Magazine:
“Forty million dollars later,” West recalls, “the gamble paid off.” West’s group had in fact produced Olovnikov’s mysterious enzyme, now known as telemorase, because of its ability to continuously spin out the vital strands of telomere DNA that keep germ cells immortal.
However, getting telemorase into aging cells is easier said than done. Instead of attempting what basically amounted to gene therapy, Dr. West decided to take another route to cell immortalization: stem cell therapy. Because embryonic stem cell research has been so controversial, Dr. West and his team at BioTime are using a technique developed by researchers at Kyoto University to create stem cells from aged somatic cells. In this procedure, transcription factors are removed from egg cells and placed in somatic cells, which transform back into colonies of stem cells over a few weeks’ time, effectively reversing the aging clock in those cells. These cells are then called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). They function exactly like embryonic stem cells, but do not come from an embryo.
“And since numerous papers on iPS have now shown switching on the telemorase gene in these cells,” continues Dr. West, “I believe that within the next 12 months, the scientific community will have documented, for the first time ever, the reversal of aging of a human cell.”
Dr. West’s team at BioTime still has a long way to go, however. For starters, they are trying to figure out how those stem cells “decide” what type of cell to become. With this information, the researchers can better direct stem cells in regenerative therapies to the correct tissue or organ needing repair. Reversal of aging of distinct cell populations could lead to reversal of aging of the entire human body.
Of course it should be noted that one of the many scientific feats cryonics depends upon to succeed is regenerative medicine: it would not be ethical or practical to revive an aged cryonics patient to live in a frail and diminished state. So it seems that BioTime may eventaully be reunited with its roots….