The quest for an elixir to restore youthful health and vigor is common to most cultures and has prompted much scientific research. About a decade ago, Stanford scientists stitched together the blood circulatory systems of old and young mice in a practice called parabiosis. It seemed to rejuvenate the aged animals and spawned vampirish urban legends of Hollywood luminaries and tech billionaires paying big bucks for healthy young blood to put into their own aging arteries in the hope of reversing or at least forestalling the aging process.
It was “kind of creepy” and also inspiring to Fabrisia Ambrosio, then thousands of miles away and near the start of her own research career into the processes of aging. Her lab is at the University of Pittsburgh but on this cold January morning I am speaking with her via Zoom as she visits with family near her native Sao Paulo, Brazil. A gleaming white high rise condo and a lush tropical jungle split the view behind her, and the summer beach is just a few blocks away.
Ambrosio possesses the joy of a kid on Christmas morning who can't wait to see what’s inside the wrapping. “I’ve always had a love for research, my father was a physicist," she says, but interest in the human body pulled her toward biology as her education progressed in the U.S. and Canada.
Back in Pittsburgh, her lab first extended the work of others in aging by using the simpler process of injecting young blood into the tail vein of old mice and found that the skeletal muscles of the animals “displayed an enhanced capacity to regenerate.” But what was causing this improvement?
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared.
The next step was to remove the extracellular vesicles (EVs) from blood. EVs are small particles of cells composed of a membrane and often a cargo inside that lipid envelope. Initially many scientists thought that EVs were simply taking out the garbage that cells no longer needed, but they would learn that one cell's trash could be another cell's treasure.
Metabolites, mRNA, and myriad other signaling molecules inside the EV can function as a complex network by which cells communicate with others both near and far. These cargoes can up and down-regulate gene expression, affecting cell activity and potentially the entire body. EVs are present in humans, the bacteria that live in and on us, even in plants; they likely communicate across all forms of life.
Being inside the EV membrane protects cargo from enzymes and other factors in the blood that can degrade it, says Kenneth Witwer, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and program chair of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles. The receptors on the surface of the EV provide clues to the type of cell from which it originated and the cell receptors to which it might later bind and affect.
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared; purified EVs alone were enough to do the job. The team also looked at muscle cell gene expression after injections of saline, young blood, and EV-depleted young blood and found significant differences. She believes this means that the major effect of enhanced regenerative capacity was coming from the EVs, though free floating proteins within the blood may also contribute something to the effect.
One such protein, called klotho, is of great interest to researchers studying aging. The name was borrowed from the Fates of Greek mythology, which consists of three sisters; Klotho spins the thread of life that her sisters measure and cut. Ambrosio had earlier shown that supplementing klotho could enhance regenerative capacity in old animals. But as with most proteins, klotho is fragile, rapidly degrading in body fluids, or when frozen and thawed. She suspected that klotho could survive better as cargo enclosed within the membrane of an EV and shielded from degradation.
So she went looking for klotho inside the EVs they had isolated. Advanced imaging technology revealed that young EVs contained abundant levels of klotho mRNAs, but the number of those proteins was much lower in EVs from old mice. Ambrosio wrote in her most recent paper, published in December in Nature Aging. She also found that the stressors associated with aging reduced the communications capacity of EVs in muscle tissue and that could be only partially restored with young blood.
Researchers still don't understand how klotho functions at the cellular level, but they may not need to know that. Perhaps learning how to increase its production, or using synthetic biology to generate more copies of klotho mRNA, or adding cell receptors to better direct EVs to specific aging tissue will be sufficient to reap the anti-aging benefits.
“Very, very preliminary data from our lab has demonstrated that exercise may be altering klotho transcripts within aged extracellular vesicles" for the better Ambrosio teases. But we already know that exercise is good for us; understanding the cellular mechanism behind that isn't likely to provide additional motivation to get up off the couch. Many of us want a prescription, a pill that is easy to take, to slow our aging.
Ambrosio hopes that others will build upon the basic research from her lab, and that pharmaceutical companies will be able to translate and develop it into products that can pass through FDA review and help ameliorate the diseases of aging.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby