Maria Blasco at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid has spent much of her career studying telomeres. A few years ago, Blasco and her colleagues found a way to extend the telomeres of mice using gene therapy. The animals lived 40 per cent longer as a result.
This therapy is not yet ready to roll out, as we don’t know if it will work in humans. There are safety issues, too. Some researchers worry that maintaining telomeres could help damaged cells survive, leading to cancer, although Blasco found that her mice seemed to be protected from this.
But that hasn’t stopped Liz Parrish from trying the treatment on herself. Parrish, who is not a scientist, launched her company, BioViva, based near Seattle, to explore and test new treatments that target the processes underlying ageing. “We can’t really create preventative medicine if we don’t address biological ageing,” she says.
After surveying existing work, Parrish felt that the telomere extension findings were the most convincing. She says she worked with scientists to develop a modified version of Blasco’s gene therapy – the details remain under wraps – which she claims to have had by injection last year. Alongside it, she received another gene therapy to prevent loss of muscle mass, which is thought to be another cause of age-related disease and frailty.
Parrish says she wasn’t scared to try the treatment. “My grandmothers had died of Alzheimer’s, and my grandfather died of heart disease. I thought, if I don’t do something, I know what I’m likely to die of.”
Parrish says she has felt “fantastic” since the treatment, and that her telomeres have grown by a length equivalent to wiping 20 years off someone’s age. That in no way amounts to a proper trial, of course, so this year, Parrish plans to launch clinical trials of her gene therapy outside the US, in people with various age-related diseases.