By Don C. Reed
“Would you want to live forever?”, asked Gloria, beloved wife of nearly half a century.
At 75, I consider myself middle-aged. My father, Dr. Charles H. Reed, is 98 and still plays doubles tennis twice a week. He is currently reading the Bible in French, is conversant in 12 languages, and wrote a dictionary in English and Vietnamese.
I love the idea of a century of useful life, to wear out in service.
There will of course come a time when the chores are done, and it will be a relief to let others carry on the work, while I merge quietly into the universe.
But to live out my last years as healthy as possible? You bet! I definitely hope to avoid some of the horror show side effects of aging, like Alzheimer’s, blindness, heart disease, atherosclerosis and other conditions I can barely pronounce!
When I first read U.C. Berkeley’s Irina Conboy’s research on aging, I couldn’t believe it. Surely this was over the edge, impossible — to deal with aging as if it was a disease, and treatable disease?
But when I typed out her CIRM grant document (something I do when I don’tunderstand) I was surprised — there was substance here. She might or might not succeed, which is true for all scientific endeavors, but she was approaching her goals systematically, step by verifiable step.
“(When) the body’s capacity to regenerate new tissue can no longer keep up with tissue death… this leads to the loss of organ function and causes many degenerative disorders….(Practical) therapies will only emerge when the balance between the regenerative and degenerative processes is properly understood.”
Degenerative, regenerative… The body breaks down, then tries to rebuild. When the breakdown is more than the rebuild, bad things happen. That made sense. But could the process be reversed, as Dr. Conboy mentioned later, so that our dedicated tissue stem cells (in muscle, brain, bone, liver, etc.) could continue to replace or repair the damaged and worn out tissues well, regardless of if we are 20 or 95 years old?
Were other scientists working on similar goals?
CIRMfunded Dr. Helen Blau of Stanford has numerous ideas (backed up by step-by-step research) on how to increase one’s chances of a long and healthy life.
Dr. Blau studies muscle stem cells (MuSCs), which she says “are responsible for the maintenance and regeneration of…muscle mass, crucial to mobility and quality of life. With advanced age, the proportion of (functional) muscle stem cells…declines”.
She hopes to “expand the (numbers of)…MuSCs in the aged muscle tissues, enabling…muscle repair in the elderly.”
Sharing her optimism is another Stanford scientist, Dr. Jill Helms:
“Research over the past decade has conclusively demonstrated that aging is reversible….old cells can become young again… we may not be able to stop the march of time but our growing knowledge of stem cell biology and aging offers new avenues to treat old diseases.
“My group at Stanford has identified and characterized a potent stem cell activator, Wnt, and shown that it activates…stem cells.
“With CIRM funding we developed a strategy for activating a patient’s own bone stem cells (for) rapid healing…our goal is to discover new ways to remain fit and vigorous, well into old age…” — Jill Helms, CIRM grant recipient, Stanford University, personal communication.
I love visiting Berkeley, the town where I was born. The UC campus is a joy, to see all the young enthusiastic men and women arguing, too excited to care who hears them; to walk past the towering Campanile clock tower, turn right, get the exercise of a good long walk and then to enter a Hall of Science and one of the cramped offices of people with genius IQs and the will to make things happen.
Michael Conboy arrived first. He is a softspoken scientist, who can communicate in small words — a talent which is much appreciated!
Then Irina Conboy (they are married) burst into the room, immediately taking command. An overwhelming personality, she has a booming voice, talks a mile a minute, and shows little mercy for those who cannot keep up… I took notes, scribbling frantically. Her approach today is to direct the productive actions of various stem cells (in muscle, brain, bone, etc. tissues) by manipulating their environment.
“In the aged body, stem cells need to be instructed. Otherwise they mostly sleep.”
She stated that the human body, even grown old, still maintains functional stem cells, which (if activated) could repair and regenerate wornout tissues and organs.
This process is very effective when we are young, but deteriorates with age, she continued; this was largely caused by the changes in their environment: both internal, (the circulatory surroundings of the adult stem cells), and external.
All too quickly we were out of time. Dr. Conboy had two classes to teach and had just been able to squeeze in our conversation.
Will the Conboy approach be the one which alleviates some of the most devastating effects of aging?
Will Dr. Helen Blau succeed with her work on muscle stem cells?
And what about Dr. Jill Helms and her WNT stem cell activator?
The only way to find out is to make sure funding is available for which the experts can compete.
Which means, of course, that Proposition 14 must pass.
NOVEMBER 3rd, please vote YES! on Prop 14, the California Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures Initiative of 2020.
Don C. Reed is the author of “CALIFORNIA CURES”, World Scientific Publishing, Inc., and other books on stem cell research