Is it “Snake Oil”?
In a recent photo taken by The Times, the 47-year-old Parrish, blonde and luminous, certainly looks like she has benefited from a slower aging process.
Since becoming BioViva’s guinea pig, she says she’s seen some qualitative improvements in how she feels and that her blood work, which is available on BioViva’s website, shows that she indeed has longer telomeres.
But Carol Greider, Ph.D., who, along with legendary scientists Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her work establishing telomere biology, isn’t convinced by Bioviva’s efforts, even though they’re based on the foundations she and her colleagues laid down early in their careers.
“We don’t have any compound that will actually elongate telomeres, despite what you can read on many websites,” Greider tells Inverse. “Of course, because we have patients in the hospital dying of these diseases, if there was some sort of a treatment, we would be looking into it. But we have looked into those things that are out there, and it’s basically snake oil.”
But Parrish has stayed in the news with her biohacking aspirations and continues to speak at conferences. So it seems that whether or not she’s got the mainstream scientific community on board, she’s convinced enough people — or at least captured their attention — to keep the life extension train rolling along.
Earlier this year, Parrish and BioViva communicated their intentions to keep pursuing life-extension therapy.
But the human body is a system that has been fine-tuned over evolutionary time, and everything — including cell death — has its place. The natural tendency for telomeres to shorten over time will eventually lead to cell death, University of California, Berkeley cell and developmental biology assistant professor Dirk Hockemeyer, Ph.D. tells Inverse, but shortening telomeres also prevent cancer. His work suggests that, if you run Parrish’s telomere-lengthening experiment to its logical extreme, what you’ll likely end up with are cancerous tumors.
“Long telomeres are generally associated with cancer, and short telomeres are generally associated with stem cell failure,” he says. It’s not clear whether the relationship between long telomeres and cancer is a casual one, but it does appear that they former helps create the necessary conditions for the latter to thrive.
The bulk of his research shows that gene mutations leading to longer telomeres are not a healthy part of fully functioning cells and instead are linked to cancer. It appears that, as with all of the body’s natural systems, there’s a fine balance between a telomere that’s long enough to extend life span and one that’s so long it induces tumor growth.
Finding that balance requires getting it just right, and the work of Hockemeyer, Greider, and literally all the scientists whose work was published in the January telomere issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B suggests we’re a long way from getting there.
She echoes the strain of other biohackers who argue that the human body is like an operating system that can be upgraded. Furthermore, Parrish sees life-extension as a way to save an aging world population from economic collapse as older people succumb to age-related illnesses, potentially saving individuals and governments from paying for expensive medical care as people get older.
Nobody’s a loser when we translate good medicine. We don’t know unless we try.”
Human testing should begin on people with terminal illnesses who are interested in trying out life-extension therapies and moving back from there until healthy people are receiving preventative care, Parrish suggests. For now, she’s going at it as a rogue since the FDA isn’t keen on approving such treatments whose track records for safety and effectiveness haven’t proven, but given Parrish’s proven tenacity, she’ll likely continue to find her way around regulators.
Parrish is undeterred by her doubters and seems convinced that they’re unwilling to take a risk and think compassionately.
“The future is something to be excited about. It’s not something to be skeptical about,” she says.
“Even the people who have the best intent might be very risk-averse. They might just be thinking about their interests. Everybody’s a winner when we win. Nobody’s a loser when we translate good medicine. We don’t know unless we try.”