Innovate or Die, Part I

I like the title of this year’s conference: Innovate or Die. I’m a gerontologist, and you know — frankly — that’s what we think about every day. Things like human mortality and how to innovate around it.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to wear two hats: I’m going to wear a corporate hat. You know — we’re a public company — so I’m going to tell you about BioTime Inc. This is really intended to give you a glimpse of the future as I see it: where we’re headed as a society, from the medical, scientific and technological standpoints. Since we are a public company, I’ll make some forward-looking statements. Please consult our SEC filings for more information about the company.

Here’s a bit of context for my comments: As the U.S. population ages, a tidal wave of trillions of dollars of health care costs is coming our way with the aging of the baby boom population. And I should layer on top of that point another related point: Today, 80% or so of total health care costs are attributable to degenerative diseases. Let’s dissect that…

If you have a sore throat or strep throat, you go in, get an antibiotic and that’s it. If you have a hangnail or an ingrown toenail, they clip it away. You go home, fixed.

The problem here is that our bodies have trillions of cells, and they have a genetic clock of aging built into them. Tissues are going to wear out because of the genetic program that’s in our hearts, that’s in our brains. It’s all throughout our body.

When these cells go and there’s no means for them to regenerate themselves, you’ve got a degenerative disease… heart failure, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration… things like that. Osteoarthritis is a big one. The body can’t repair itself. And now you’ve got a problem that’s chronic and degenerative, and it’s going to just eat up massive amounts of capital because you’ve got to take care of these people. You’ve got to get them very expensive surgeries like hip replacements and so on…

So that’s the worst thing I’m going to tell you today. All the rest is good news, seriously good news. As a gerontologist, I entered the field back in the late ’70s, and the recombinant DNA revolution was just occurring…

Everyone got excited about this because it was really big. It was the ability to manipulate DNA. That’s the blueprint of life. That’s what makes us go from one cell to a human that thinks and talks and does what we do. It makes us differently from one another.

Our ability to change that DNA and mess around with it in a constructive sense had enormous implications for medicine. It began in a very controversial manner. I’ll point out what some of you may not remember: Cambridge, Mass., the home of MIT and Harvard, banned recombinant DNA because it was so controversial and everyone was afraid that we were going places we shouldn’t go.

Can you believe it was that controversial in those days?

Today, recombinant DNA is fundamental in medicine. I can’t even think of any novel, current medical innovation that does not involve recombinant DNA. It’s that widespread.

Monoclonal antibodies were another big revolution. Then the science moved on to embryonic stem cells, cells that have the potential to make all the cellular components of the human body.

It’s an all-powerful stem cell. As we said back in those days, “the mother of all stem cells.”

And like these previous scientific breakthroughs, it began in controversy, but is now becoming fundamentally integrated within medical research and, eventually, accepted medical practice.

Why are they so important? Why are they so powerful?

As I said, never before in the history of medicine have we had the ability of simply making spare parts for the human body. Something you can do for a car, an antique car to keep it going, we’ve never been able to do, with the exception, of course, of transplants… if you can find a donor.

The cells in our bodies, as I mentioned, have a clock of aging; they have a finite capacity to divide. So eventually, they cease dividing and tissues degenerate.

These cells… what attracted me to them back then in the mid-1990s was that we had deciphered this telomere clock (it’s called). It’s at the ends of the DNA strands. It’s a clock of cell aging. We figured out how it worked and, theoretically, that if you could go back far enough to the first cells from which we’re made, the cells should be — as we say — immortal.

It’s a scientific term, not a religious term. It means the cells would not age.

Why would we think such an outrageous thing?
It looks like we need to take an intermission, but we’ll answer that question when we resume.


Dr. Michael West
For Tomorrow in Review