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Growing Younger With Age

October 31, 2016, 1:55 PM UTC

With some notable exceptions, normal human cells can copy themselves only a certain number of times before they die. When the cells are young, they divide and multiply with a spring-like flourishing. But eventually, they enter a state that biologist Leonard Hayflick, back in the 1960s, termed “senescence”—a kind of drawn-out nursing-home limbo in which the cells, though still alive, are often in progressive decline. The point at which this happens—in some cases, after about 50 doublings; and in others, even fewer—is known as the Hayflick limit.

We feel the effects of this cellular aging in our aching joints, stiffer blood vessels, and weakened immune response. It manifests in skin that has lost its suppleness, in weaker vision, in failing memories—and, of course, in a raft of aging-related illnesses from cancer to heart disease. Why this bludgeoning of bodily insults happens is part nature (our genes), part nurture (our lifestyle), part environment, part chance. But one key culprit is a piece of molecular hardware called the telomere (pronounced with a long “T” up front: TEE-lo-meer).

If you think of your chromosomes as shoelaces, telomeres are the aglets: the caps at the ends that keep the strands from fraying. More specifically, they’re stretches of non-coding DNA (covered by a sheath of proteins) that—and here’s the rub—get shorter with every cell division. The shorter they get, the less they protect the chromosomes, and inevitably the cells carrying those vulnerable strands of genetic code are put out to pasture.

But what if it wasn’t inevitable? What if you could keep your telomeres from shriveling away? No, we can’t cheat death forever—but what if we could be mostly healthy for most of our “old age?” These are the questions asked by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel in their extraordinary new book, The Telomere Effect: The New Science of Living Younger, which is due out in January.

The authors, I should emphasize, certainly know their way around the gene pool: Blackburn, the president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, shared in a 2009 Nobel Prize for her elucidation of the protective roles of telomeres and the enzyme (telomerase) that helps rebuild them. Epel is a professor of psychiatry at UCSF who has long studied the effects of stress on human health and physiology. And together, they have crafted a thoughtful, remarkably accessible, and quite possibly life-changing guide to reaching young-old age.

Some of the advice—get more sleep, avoid sugar, de-stress—is so shopworn you might think it ignorable. But by grounding it in well-explained, telomere-connected science, Blackburn and Epel make it sound uncannily new and sophisticated. For those who don’t feel like waiting for the January book release, you can get a preview by watching the livestream of my conversation with Dr. Blackburn Tuesday evening at Fortune Brainstorm Health. Hey, I’m feeling younger already.

Here’s Sy with the day’s digital health news.

Clifton Leaf


Internet of Things devices can be hacked in under three minutes. Security firm ForeScout is out with a new report finding that many Internet of Things devices, including healthcare devices, can be hacked in under three minutes. Even more problematically, once such products are hacked, restoring them to their original secure state is no easy feat. And hospitals and providers don't seem prepared for what many consider an inevitable spike in such attacks. "Healthcare organizations have been very focused on protecting traditional IT, spending millions of dollars to secure its systems. But it leaves an open door with IoT devices—although it's meant to be a secure system," ForeScout Chief Strategy Officer Pedro Abreu tells Healthcare IT News. (Healthcare IT News)

This Swedish biotech is raising money for its synthetic bone technology. Sweden's BoneSupport just raised some big cash ($37 million) to help finance its novel Cerament faux bone technology. Cerament mimics traditional spongy bone, but with a twist: it also doles out medication. The Cerament platform involves injecting the synthetic bone into the affected area and is meant to simultaneously help bones heal while, say, also spraying out antibiotics in order to prevent the bone from getting infected. The company believes that it can eventually be used to treat a wide range of bone disorders. (FierceBiotech)

More than 20 family members were incorrectly diagnosed by a genetic test after boy's death. After a 13-year-old boy's tragic and sudden death from cardiac arrest, many members of his family were incorrectly diagnosed with a deadly genetic disorder called Long QT syndrome, and at least one underwent medical procedures that he didn't need. The reason? Improper protocols surrounding the administration of a genetic test to determine why the boy suddenly died. The genetic test was performed on the boy's brother without actually being performed on the deceased child himself, and led doctors to incorrectly conclude that Long QT syndrome was the reason for his death. The brother unnecessarily had a defibrillator placed in his heart as a preventive measure after the troublesome test. (Wall Street Journal)


Sanofi's blockbuster drug hopeful hits a regulatory snag. There are about a million things that can go wrong over the course of drug development. A candidate that seemed promising in early-stage trials can fall flat in phase three testing, or prove to have negative side effects in certain patients. But sometimes a perfectly effective therapy can get derailed by manufacturing concerns. That's what Sanofi and Regeneron say happened with their promising rheumatoid arthritis drug sarilumab, which many analysts believe has the potential to become a $1 billion-plus per year therapy. An inspection revealed deficiencies at a French plant where sarilumab syringes are filled, leading regulators to issue a "complete response letter" to the companies. Sanofi and Regeneron say they are taking corrective actions to fix the deficiencies. (Wall Street Journal)

The FDA approved a stem cell and gene therapy combo trial for ALS. Researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have received a go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration to test out an experimental combination of stem cell and gene therapy to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The devastating neurological disorder has no cure—but a group of 18 ALS patients at Cedars-Sinai will soon begin receiving the experimental treatment, which is meant to help preserve Lou Gehrig's patients' ability to move their legs. Earlier this year, researchers made a genetic breakthrough in ALS, identifying a gene that contributes to the disease with money from the viral "Ice Bucket Challenge." (Fortune)

AstraZeneca R&D chief says the UK's war on drug prices will consequences post-Brexit. British pharma giant AstraZeneca's R&D chief Mene Pangalos is slamming U.K. regulators' efforts to keep drug prices in check, arguing that their aggressive tactics on pricey therapies will lead to a pharma R&D drain from the U.K. in a post-Brexit world. Pangalos argues that innovative new drugs are impossible to make unless biopharma firms are properly reimbursed for their therapies, and his tough language implies that pharma may have some more leverage over regulators now that the U.K. has voted to leave the EU. (The Telegraph


Healthcare executives aren't giving much money to Donald Trump. The CEOs of Independence Blue Cross, Geisinger Health System, Centene Corp., and the Duke University Health System all donated the maximum possible amount to Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign, according to a new analysis of 100 healthcare executives' political giving. Furthermore, the analysis of FEC records finds that 25% of the top executives gave money to Clinton and not a single one donated to Trump. (Modern Healthcare)

J&J ordered to pay $70 million in baby powder-cancer link case. Johnson & Johnson has now lost a hat trick of lawsuits over allegations that its popular baby powder product is linked with ovarian cancer. The pharmaceutical giant was ordered to pay $70 million to Deborah Giannecchini, who developed ovarian cancer after regularly using the talcum powder for feminine hygiene purposes. J&J says that it plans to appeal the decision. Jurors in two other similar cases awarded $72 million and $55 million to respective defendants, and there are about 1,7o0 ongoing lawsuits over the matter. (Fortune)

More research being done on potential links between poverty and mental illness. A growing body of research finds that there is, at the very least, a correlation between being poor and developing mental illness, NPR reports. Some studies have found that families in poverty tend to have higher stress hormone levels that may contribute to mental disorders such as depression. But it's difficult to definitively make the connection since it's not possible (or ethical) to plunge people into and out of poverty. The question is whether or not poverty intervention measures could have the ability to lower risk of mental illness—something that will require significantly more research to answer. (NPR)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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