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Telomeres, highlighted in green, serve as protective DNA caps for the cell’s chromosomes. (Illustration courtesy of BioViva USA)

The way BioViva founder Elizabeth Parrish sees it, biological aging is a disease – and she’s willing to bet her life on a cure.

Last fall, the 45-year-old Seattle-area woman underwent an experimental type of gene therapy aimed at addressing some of the big effects of aging, including loss of muscle mass and a shortening of the chromosomes’ telomeres. The procedure was reportedly done in Colombia, to get around U.S. regulations.

The idea of having gene therapy done on yourself raised eyebrows in the biotech community, but Parrish was unfazed.

“I 100 percent believe that it will work, or else I wouldn’t have done it,” Parrish told GeekWire during an interview in February. “I didn’t try to flame out in glory. The research shows that it should absolutely work.”

Elizabeth Parrish
Elizabeth Parrish is CEO and founder of BioViva USA. (Credit: BioViva USA)

Now BioViva is reporting that it does seem to work, at least on Parrish’s telomeres. And that’s likely to fuel a debate over the widening scientific quest for greater longevity – conducted not only by BioViva, but by other ventures such as Human Longevity Inc. This week, Human Longevity announced a 10-year deal with AstraZeneca to analyze 500,000 DNA samples for anti-aging clues.

Parrish is already trying to follow up on a couple of clues through Bioviva USA, the privately held company she founded on Bainbridge Island last year. Bioviva announced its own deal this week with a London-based investment fund called Deep Knowledge Life Sciences.

One of BioViva’s anti-aging clues has to do with a protein called myostatin: Research suggests that genetically blocking the production of myostatin could help prevent age-related muscle loss.

The other clue has to do with telomeres, the stretches of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that are thought to protect our genetic data from harmful mutations – much as the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces keep them from unraveling. As we age, those telomeres become shorter, and the protective effect is gradually lost.

The gene therapy that Parrish underwent was aimed at inhibiting myostatin and building up telomeres.

In February, Parrish was reluctant to describe the effects. “There are a lot of things I could say – ‘Oh, this has happened, or that has happened’ – but it could all be due to the placebo effect,” she said. “Data is king.”

A bit of data came out this week: The Biogerontology Research Foundation reported that Parrish’s telomeres were short for her age when her white blood cells were tested last September at SpectraCell Laboratories in Houston. But when SpectraCell ran the same test on her cells in March, the telomere length went from 6,710 DNA base pairs to 7,330 base pairs.

The foundation said the lengthening implied that Parrish’s white blood cells had become biologically younger. That’s debatable, however. For one thing, the findings haven’t yet been submitted for peer-reviewed publication. For another, the connection between a change in telomere length and improved cellular function hasn’t been nailed down. Human telomere length can vary widely, from less than 5,000 to more than 15,000 base pairs.

Bottom line? Parrish is likely to continue as a human guinea pig for years to come.

The fact that she went ahead with self-experimentation under less-than-transparent circumstances has rubbed some people the wrong way. Last October, MIT Technology Review said there’s a chance that the experiment could be remembered as “a new low in medical quackery.”

University of Washington medical researcher George Martin resigned from BioViva’s scientific advisory board after he heard what Parrish had done.

“She’s a good-hearted person, and I’m very fond of her,” Martin told GeekWire this week. “But as a physician, I felt very strongly that we had to do clinical trials and pre-clinical trials.”

Parrish herself acknowledged that she didn’t tell any of her scientific advisers about her gene therapy in advance. “They would have had to say no,” she said.

The way she sees it, she had to say yes.

“Over 100,000 people die every day of aging diseases,” she said. “Somebody told me today, they said, ‘You’re so brave.’  Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. What’s brave is knowing that there could be a cure for aging diseases, and not taking it, and deciding that you’re going to wither away. I’m not that brave.”

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