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.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.