STEM CELL BIOHACKING
The pursuit of longer lives filled with more meaning, happiness, and contentment is a struggle as old as humankind. From our own inception, we have wanted to live longer and experience more of our own existence on this planet. And even today that pursuit holds good reason. Immortality may be the perfection humankind has been racing towards, never quite grasping it, but even still has achieved marvels of technology all aimed at making our lives easier.
For good reason, we can trace the initial motivation of many of today’s greatest inventions to be that of safety and facilitation. Take a good look around you and you can notice that motivation in man-made structures we often take for granted, such as our cars, our homes, and even our clothes. The early humans had none of these and this was a major factor limiting their lifespans. Disease, natural disasters, and the harsh environment test our adaptability to its maximum. To increase our chances of survival in those very conditions, we began experimenting. Our motivation to survive and live longer began on the basis of our curiosity to conceive, create and conquer. We invented clothes to keep us safe from the cold. We built weapons and shelters to keep us safe from predators. We built homes to keep us safe from the outside environment and provide an element of personal and mental safety. We built transportation to free us from our localities and allow us to travel far distances to find more suitable abodes where we can live longer. We discovered medicinal plants and built newer better methods of healing to keep us safe from disease. Seeing the pattern here?
Our drive to innovate is, in my humble opinion, all traceable back to our most basic desire to survive and live longer. That desire still dominates our minds today as we strive for an even better way of extending our lifespans. The earliest humans of the Paleolithic era were lucky to even reach 15 years of age. Even our average lifespans in a period as recent as the 19th century stood between 28.5 and 32 years old. Our advancements in technology, medicine, and transport have bumped it up to a 2019-2020 world average of over 72 years old. Statistically speaking, the human lifespan today is more than it has ever been in our recorded history. And our sights are now set on even greater years of joyful lives. Stem cells are quickly becoming the beacon of that hope as we dream of using them to further our cause of longer and longer lives. Let’s look at what stem cells are and why are they being hailed as the showstopper for the show that is a life enhancement.
WHAT ARE STEM CELLS?
The human body is a product of cell division that takes place after an egg and a sperm combine to make a zygote. From that moment on, repeated regular cell division doubles the number of cells making up our body until we become the walking and talking organized mass of 37 trillion cells we are today. All 37 trillion of those cells came from that singular zygote. So, it stands to reason that the zygote had all the blueprints necessary to make our hearts and brains and muscles and bones and livers and kidneys, etc. already within it. These types of cells that contain the potential and molecular plans to become any type of specialized cell we have are called stem cells. Like the stem of a plant that can grow to produce any kind of leaves and fruit, stem cells are our cellular versions of Adam and Eve.
First discovered by James Thompson and colleagues in 1998, human stem cells have the potential to divide and specialize into any kind of cell including heart muscle cells, neurons in the brain, osteocytes of the bone and secretory cells of our glands and organs. The reason stem cells have gained popularity against other forms of therapy is because of the apparent limit-free dividing ability of stem cells.
In concept, the more a cell is specialized, the lesser its ability to regenerate and replace itself fully. Notable examples of very specialized cells include the nephrons in the kidney, neurons in the brain, and the contractile myocytes of the heart. These cells have little to no regeneration potential which poses a problem when these organs are damaged. The damage, therefore, tends to be permanent in nature. The body has other methods of coping with damage to these kinds of specialized cells such as replacing them with fibrotic tissue, a process called fibrosis, but this does not solve the loss of function the organ goes through. Because of this, damage to the heart, brain and kidneys tends to be irreversible and produce a lifelong decrease in quality of life. Stem cells, however, do not have this limitation. They can infinitely divide into any kind of cell, even the highly specialized ones that we saw. This ability is why stem cells are the focus of this chapter as we briefly look into what we can do with such cells of massive potential.
Stem cells are further divided into 2 primary categories: Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) and induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC). The difference between them is easy to understand. Embryonic stem cells are those cells that can be found at the time of birth, such as cord cells from a baby’s umbilical cord. ESCs are cells in their preliminary stages of development. iPSCs are, on the other hand, cells that were initially specialized to some extent already, but after chemical treatment by scientists, can be made to reverse their development and return to their stem cell version. ESCs and iPSCs are classified as such because each of these types have different practical applications. We will discuss these applications in the next sections of this chapter.
STEM CELL THERAPIES
We have seen the potential of stem cells to transform themselves into any type of human cell. And the applications of this ability alone are immense. You can probably guess what those can be. Stem cell therapies have gained massive interest around the globe as researchers and scientists aim to harness this untapped potential of pluripotent stem cells to treat a variety of medical conditions ranging from cancers to ageing. Where biohacking steps in, is where stem cell therapies are poised to be used not just to “treat” a condition, but also “enhance” an already existing healthy body.
When it comes to which type of stem cells can be used for therapeutics, we come back to the basic classification into embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Different trials have taken place testing these two categories to see which category can help in treating which condition. Some examples include the following
Blood Disorders and Cancers
Blood disorders such as Leukemia, Lymphoma, as well as other forms of cancer have been shown to be receptive to stem cell therapies. Cancer immunotherapy is a very brick-to-the-face process. It does the job of killing many kinds of cancer cells but at the cost of loss of normal cells as well. This major side effect of cancer immunotherapy is what researchers hope to limit using stem cells.
In particular, stem cells contained within bone marrow are used to repopulate the blood cell lines that have been damaged by both the blood cancers as well as the chemo and radiotherapy used to exterminate the cancerous cells This allows the chemo and radio to do their job and the stem cells to effectively restore the normal cells damaged during the process.
Bone marrow transplants have been used for blood disorders before and have very good results, although the process is quite expensive.
Burns and Injuries
An obvious application of pluripotent cells such as stem cells is using their rapid regeneration potential to replace damaged cells as is the case with traumatic injuries and burns. For burn injuries, as skin tissue is burnt beyond repair, multiple therapies have been tested including a very out-there but promising idea of using fish skin as a graft over burnt skin. Tilapia fish skin has a high proportion of collagen and collagen promoting growth factors, and the skin therefore receives both a physical barrier against acquiring bacteria because of exposure of burnt skin to the outside environment, as well as enhanced healing under the fish skin’s collagen building framework.
Stem cells promise to make Tilapia skins look primitive. With stem cells, the procedure is reduced to the simple replacement of burnt skin cells with stem cells that divide and differentiate into skin cells themselves. It’s like literally growing a spare part for your body, though not at the level of Wolverine or Deadpool mind you, but who knows what the future holds.
Similar to burns, injured tissues such as spinal cord damage, traumatic brain injury, heart failure and macular degeneration can also be treated with stem cells as all these tissues have limited regeneration capabilities of their own. Stem cell therapy is poised to repopulate the damaged areas with the same specialized cells that they once had, without the need for the body’s plan B i.e. non-functional fibrosis.
This process even happens naturally. Researchers have found that in pregnant women, if the mother’s organs or systems take any damage throughout the duration of the pregnancy, the unborn baby still inside sends its own stem cells through the umbilical cord and placenta to heal the damaged maternal tissues. Talk about a collaboration.
We saw how brain and spinal cord injuries can be helped with stem cell treatments. Let’s take it a step further. Some of the most debilitating conditions we can face are conditions of the brain. Take Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease for example. Parkinson’s disease arises from the destruction of specific dopamine and acetylcholine secreting neurons in the brain collectively called the Substantia Nigra. As we discussed before, neurons are highly specialized cells with little regeneration capability and the lack of substantia nigra neurons is the literal cause of Parkinson’s, what if we had a way to replace those neurons. In a couple years, we may very well do with stem cell therapies. Current studies with simian models of Parkinson’s Disease such as that of Hallet and colleagues in 2015 have shown neuroprotective effects of stem cells with improved motor function even 2 years after the intervention.
Similarly, Alzheimer’s disease is debilitating condition whereby proteins of anomalous shapes are deposited inside different neurons in the brain, leading to decrease in cognitive ability, dementia and more. With stem cells however, there may even be the possibility of regenerating those damaged neurons and even reversing Alzheimer’s disease.
Bone and Joint disorders
Arthritis is another debilitating condition that people can suffer from. Whether it is immunologic like Rheumatoid Arthritis, or due to repeated wear and tear such as Osteoarthritis, a decrease in mobility is a major dampener on our quality of life. Elderly people often develop some form of arthritis over the years and this alone compromises their daily activities, rendering them needing movement assisting devices like canes, scooters and even wheelchairs.
Stem cell therapies can be used to help in reversing the effects of arthritis. Activated stem cell injection within the joints affected by osteoarthritis can theoretically regenerate the lost cartilage leading to reversal of movement limitation. Healing cartilage within joint capsules can also ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and massively improve quality of daily activities.
Transplant and Immunity Disorders
This is one of my personal favorite applications of stem cells. Transplant rejection is one of the biggest problems when it comes to conditions where people cannot survive otherwise. Think of a 15-year-old kid with Cystic Fibrosis who cannot survive without a lung transplant, an unfortunate gentleman with liver failure following liver cancer who desperately needs a new liver in order to live, or a more recent predicament like young adults who have had their hearts ravaged by Covid-19, rendering them incapable of pumping blood, leaving them no option but a heart transplant. Not only would any of the above people have a hard and long-time finding organs that are a correct HLA match for their bodies, but they would also need lifelong immunity suppressing medication to further decrease chances of rejection with the added side effect of also being susceptible to infections.
Stem cells can fix all that and is spectacular fashion. In recent years, scientists have been exploring the possibility of growing human organs using stem cells in a lab. Yes, you read that right, growing organs in a lab. In the future, we would be able to see organs grown for the sole reason of transplantation, using the person’s own stem cells. This eliminates tissue rejection and the need for immunosuppressants altogether as for the host’s immune system the transplanted organ would be indistinguishable from the other organs in the body. No rejection whatsoever.
BIOHACKING WITH STEM CELLS
Stem cells, as we have seen, can very well revolutionize the way medicine is practiced and deliver us all into an era of not allopathic medicine, but regenerative medicine.
That is not to say that efforts are not being made in that direction, as new studies on the marvel that is stem cells are popping up and people are getting excited at this impending revolution in the art of healing. Some have even gone so far as to develop methods to use stem cells to enhance our present healthy selves as well, focusing their objectives on slowing down or even reversing the signs and indicators of aging, hoping to achieve our primary pursuit of living longer. This is where the biohackers of the world come in as they try their best to take control over our natural aging process and modulate it so that our current life expectancy of 72 years starts to look as pale in comparison to our future selves as the 19th century average life expectancy of 32 years looks to us today.
David Asprey method
We’ll start off our biohacking methods with what the father of biohacking, David Asprey, routinely uses. David suffers from arthritis and as we saw that stem cells can offer massive improvements in mobility for arthritis patients. David understands that and uses his knowledge and resources to procure that treatment for himself. For the context of this book, let’s just call this the David Asprey method.
In the David Asprey method, the procedure begins with the extraction of stem cells from two sources, namely David’s bone marrow from his Iliac crests and his fat pads. That reservoir of stem cells is then treated with a specialized cocktail of growth factors called Exosomes. The combined product is activated stem cells ready to proliferate and differentiate. In David’s case, the target for activated stem cells is his joints. The concoction of David’s stem cells activated with growth factors is then injected into his arthritis affected joints starting from his feet all the way to each vertebral joint, allowing not only improved mobility in those joints, but a near absence of pain as well.
In theory, such a system of extraction and activation of the body’s own stem cells, a form of iPSC, can also be used to treat other conditions such as muscle degeneration, heart failure, corneal regrowth and more.
Speaking of the David Asprey method, let’s talk briefly about exosomes. Exosomes as in David’s method as well as in the realm of beauty biohacking, are essentially biological micro capsules containing natural compounds called growth factors such as Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF), Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) as well as a synthetic version of the human growth hormone. These exosomes are introduced to the stem cells close to their re-injection phase, so that they can start proliferating. Once injected into the target tissues, these activated stem cells can then divide and specialize into the cells of the area they are injected into.
Exosome treatment is utilized for not just stem cells but also platelet rich plasma (PRP), also enhancing the repair capabilities of the plasma. This activated plasma can then be injected into the skin to induce repair and healing, ultimately treating fine lines, wrinkles and areas of mild scarring.
Exosome treatment is still under study for applications in different medical conditions. We may see exosome activation processes in many other regenerative techniques in the near future.
Lasers and Light Therapy
Light therapy has been extensively used even in our age of medicine. Premature children are exposure to light therapy to keep their temperatures stable. Jaundice of newborn children is also treated with light therapy. Alternative medicine deploys light therapy of different wavelengths to decrease inflammation and promote healing. This healing induction is also used alongside stem cells therapy.
With stem cell therapy, just as with the addition of exosomes, use of red light can also further help stem cells activation by way of promoting energy production the mitochondria of those stem cells, increasing their rate of division and proliferation. Similarly, red light therapy can also be used to decrease swelling and inflammation in the areas of the body that undergo stem cell treatments, so that the recipient of the treatment does not spend the next few days in pain. A very useful adjunct indeed.
Lasers are used for dermatologic conditions all the time and even for stem cells therapies they also play a supportive role by introducing micro-damage to the skin areas exposed to the laser. This helps to give the stem cells a target. Just as how exercising breaks our muscle down and gives the food we eat a target to go to and then rebuild and re-enforce the damaged muscle, so too the stem cells get a higher chance of success when given a target tissue to heal.
This is a specialized multi-step method particularly popular is skincare and beauty biohacking spheres. Extracorporeal Blood Oxygenation and Ozonation or EBO2 is a complex method of extracting blood from the body, then treating that blood with an array of techniques before returning that blood into your circulation. Think of it like dialysis, but instead of just removing waste from the blood, the process also enhances the blood’s repair abilities.
Combined with exosome activated stem cells taken from the blood, EBO2 is being used in antiaging clinics in the US help their clients reverse the visible signs of aging, to produce more youthful skin. A separate blood sample is first taken for prepare the platelet rich plasma which is then charged with exosomes. Then the EBO2 machine is hooked to your blood with intravenous catheters, and the outflowing blood from one arm is treated with UV light to kill any pathogens in the blood, followed by hyper-oxygenation or ozonation to increase density of oxygen in the blood and finally the blood is run though a red light chamber to enhance mitochondrial energy production before being returned to the body via a vein in the other arm.
The EBO2 method is further complimented by a supplementary skin injection of the exosome activated PRP that was prepared with the blood sample earlier.
It sounds very high tech, and it is. The process is complicated and expensive but offers a generous insight into a biohacking technique utilizing stem cells and PRP to reverse aging and look 20 years old even at 40.
Stem cells are the future of medicine and Is say that with confidence because of all the promise they show when it comes to real world applications for both people with medical conditions as well as perfectly healthy people just wanting to live longer and healthier. The human pursuit of longer life is reflected in the development and refinement of stem cell therapies and I, personally, am excited to see what more can be achieved with them.
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