Year-End Health News: Anti-Aging and Artificial Hearts

medtechHere we have two more stories from last year that I find I can’t move on without posting about them. And considering just how relevant they are to the field of biomedicine, there was no way I could let them go unheeded. Not only are developments such as these likely to save lives, they are also part of a much-anticipated era where mortality will be a nuisance rather than an inevitability.

The first story comes to us from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the Harvard Medical School, where a joint effort achieved a major step towards the dream of clinical immortality. In the course of experimenting on mice, the researchers managed to reverse the effects of aging in mice using an approach that restores communication between a cell’s mitochondria and nucleus.

MitochondriaMitochondria are the power supply for a cell, generating the energy required for key biological functions. When communication breaks down between mitochondria and the cell’s control center (the nucleus), the effects of aging accelerate. Led by David Sinclair, a professor from UNSW Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the team found that by restoring this molecular communication, aging could not only be slowed, but reversed.

Responsible for this breakdown is a decline of the chemical Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (or NAD). By increasing amounts of a compound used by the cell to produce NAD, Professor Sinclair found that he and his team could quickly repair mitochondrial function. Key indicators of aging, such as insulin resistance, inflammation and muscle wasting, showed extensive improvement.

labmiceIn fact, the researchers found that the tissue of two-year-old mice given the NAD-producing compound for just one week resembled that of six-month-old mice. They said that this is comparable to a 60-year-old human converting to a 20-year-old in these specific areas. As Dr Nigel Turner, an ARC Future Fellow from UNSW’s Department of Pharmacology and co-author of the team’s research paper, said:

It was shocking how quickly it happened. If the compound is administered early enough in the aging process, in just a week, the muscles of the older mice were indistinguishable from the younger animals.

The technique has implications for treating cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting, inflammatory and mitochondrial diseases as well as anti-aging. Sinclair and his team are now looking at the longer-term outcomes of the NAD-producing compound in mice and how it affects them as a whole. And with the researchers hoping to begin human clinical trials in 2014, some major medical breakthroughs could be just around the corner.

carmat_artificialheartIn another interesting medical story, back in mid-December, a 75 year-old man in Paris became the  recipient of the world’s first Carmat bioprosthetic artificial heart. Now technically, artificial hearts have been in use since the 1980’s. But what sets this particular heart apart, according to its inventor – cardiac surgeon Alain Carpentier – is the Carmat is the first artificial heart to be self-regulating.

In this case, self-regulating refers to the Carmat’s ability to speed or slow its flow rate based on the patient’s physiological needs. For example, if they’re performing a vigorous physical activity, the heart will respond by beating faster. This is made possible via “multiple miniature embedded sensors” and proprietary algorithms running on its integrated microprocessor. Power comes from an external lithium-ion battery pack worn by the patient, and a fuel cell is in the works.

carmat_2Most other artificial hearts beat at a constant unchanging rate, which means that patients either have to avoid too much activity, or risk becoming exhausted quickly. In the course of its human trials, it will be judged based on its ability to keep patients with heart failure alive for a month, but the final version is being designed to operate for five years.

The current lone recipient is reported to be recuperating in intensive care at Paris’ Georges Pompidou European Hospital, where he is awake and carrying on conversations. “We are delighted with this first implant, although it is premature to draw conclusions given that a single implant has been performed and that we are in the early postoperative phase,” says Carmat CEO Marcello Conviti.

medical-technologyAccording to a Reuters report, although the Carmat is similar in size to a natural adult human heart, it’s is somewhat larger and almost three times as heavy – weighing in at approximately 900 grams (2 lb). It should therefore fit inside 86 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. That said, the company has stated that a smaller model could be made in time.

In the meantime, it’s still a matter of making sure the self-regulating bioprosthetic actually works and prolongs the life of patients who are in the final stages of heart failure. Assuming the trials go well, the Carmat is expected to be available within the European Union by early 2015, priced at between 140,000 and 180,000 euros, which works out to $190,000 – $250,000 US.

See what I mean? From anti-aging to artificial organs, the war on death proceeds apace. Some will naturally wonder if that’s a war meant to be fought, or an inevitably worth mitigating. Good questions, and one’s which we can expect to address at length as the 21st century progresses…

Sources: gizmodo.com, newsroom.unsw.edu.au, (2), carmatsa.com, reuters.com

Immortality Inc: Google’s “Calico”

calico-header-640x353Google has always been famous for investing in speculative ventures and future trends. Between their robot cars, Google Glass, the development of AI (the Google Brain), high-speed travel (the Hyperloop), and alternative energy, their seems to be no limit to what Musk and Page’s company will take on. And now, with Calico, Google has made the burgeoning industry of life-extension its business.

The newly formed company has set itself to “focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Those were the words of Google co-founder Larry Page, who issued a two-part press release back in September. From this, it is known that Calico will focus on life extension and improvement. But in what way and with what business model, the company has yet to explain.

DNA-1What does seem clear at this point is that Art Levinson, the chairman of Apple and former CEO of Genentech (a pioneer in biotech) will be the one to head up this new venture. His history working his way from a research scientist on up to CEO of Genentech makes him the natural choice, since he will bring medical connections and credibility to a company that’s currently low on both.

Google Health, the company’s last foray into the health industry, was a failure for the company. This site, which began in 2008 and shut down in 2011, was a personal health information centralization service that allowed Google users to volunteer their health records. Once entered, the site would provide them with a merged health record, information on conditions, and possible interactions between drugs, conditions, and allergies.

Larry_PageIn addition, the reasons for the company’s venture into the realm of health and aging may have something to do with Larry Page’s own recent health concerns. For years, Page has struggled with vocal nerve strain, which led him to make a significant donation to research into the problem. But clearly, Calico aims to go beyond simple health problems and cures for known diseases.

google.cover.inddIn a comment to Time Magazine, Page stated that a cure for cancer would only extent the average human lifespan by 3 years. They want to think bigger than that, which could mean addressing the actual causes of aging, the molecular processes that break down cells. Given that Google Ventures included life extension technology as part of their recent bid to attract engineering students, Google’s top brass might have a slightly different idea.

And while this might all sound a bit farfetched, the concept of life-extension and even clinical immortality have been serious pursuits for some time. We tend to think of aging as a fact of life, something that is as inevitable as it is irreversible. However, a number of plausible scenarios have already been discussed that could slow or even end this process, ranging from genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, implant technology, and cellular therapy.

Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_cropWhether or not Calico will get into any of these fields remains to be seen. But keeping in mind that this is the company that has proposed setting aside land for no-hold barred experimentation and even talked about building a Space Elevator with a straight face. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started building cryogentic tanks and jars for preserving disembodies brains before long!

Source: extremetech.com, (2), content.time.com