So first of all - welcome Mark! What was your journey like to becoming the co-founder of Forever Labs?
So first of all - welcome Mark! What was your journey like to becoming the co-founder of Forever Labs?
Thanks, Victoria! My journey was a circuitous one! A career as an artist was my original plan, and I spent most of high school in art classes. That changed when my parents declined to pay for art school. I’ve always had a passion for science, so I settled on a degree in physics instead. After earning my bachelor’s degree, by chance, I visited a physics-professor-turned-neuroscientist that was developing stem cell treatments for stroke. That led to a PhD in Medical Physics, followed by more than a decade as a grant-funded stem cell scientist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. During my tenure there, my research focused largely upon mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), a kind of stem cell found in your bone marrow and fat tissue. These MSCs are master regulators of health and regeneration, and we and others found that they have great therapeutic potential, not only for the treatment of stroke, but injury and other age-related diseases. In the past ten years, there has been an explosion of clinical treatments using the MSC for this reason.
One thing that we found in the course of our research was that MSCs decline in function with age, and with that, their therapeutic potential diminishes. This presents a real problem if you want to use your stem cells for the treatment of age-related diseases. When you need them most, your stem cells are at their worst. What more, there is tantalizing evidence that replacement of old MSCs lost to time with young ones, might delay (and perhaps somewhat reverse) the aging process. In fact, in 2012, I submitted some grant applications to the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Aging wherein we proposed to transplant young MSCs to genetically-matched old mice, and test if the MSCs affected their rate of aging. I was not awarded those grants, but others have performed similar experiments prior to 2012 and after, and mice treated with young MSCs do live longer on average.
While working as a research scientist during the day, I created the social website, https://hubski.com to teach myself a coding language aside from FORTRAN. Some describe
Hubski as if Twitter and Reddit had an intelligent baby. My good friend Steven Clausnitser (and now Forever Labs CEO) joined me as co-founder a few months after launching the site.
I’m a person with many projects, and always fascinated by transformative technology. In 2014, Steven and I started a company selling bitcoin with a few others. The venture was successful, but before long, financial regulators reached out to advise us that we would need to register as
money-transmitters in all 50 States. It was on a call about this issue that quite out-of-the-blue I expressed that I wanted cryopreserve my stem cells, and lamented that I couldn’t find a service for it. After explaining to team why I wanted to do such a thing, we set out to see if
we could find someone that would do it for us. Thus, Forever Labs was born.
We started Forever Labs with just one clinic in Michigan; however, before long, people were flying in from out of state to bank their stem cells with us. In 2016 we launched a clinic in California, and shortly thereafter we were invited to apply to the tech incubator Y Combinator.
We were in the Summer 2017 YC batch, raised venture capital, and things have just continued to grow from there. I believe we are active in 12 states now, and we work with over 50 physicians. I serve as President and Chief Science Officer.
In a nutshell, Forever Labs is working to eradicate age-related disease and perhaps aging itself via the heterochronic transplantation of stem cells. How would you describe what steps Forever Labs does in order to achieve those goals?
Simply put, we stop the clock on your stem cells. A physician collects tissue that contains the stem cells, and we cryopreserve them for long-term storage in an FDA-compliant biorepository. Your cells are stored in vapor-phase liquid nitrogen, which renders them biologically inert. They may then be retrieved at a future date, thawed, and then used, whether for the treatment of injury, age-related disease, or possibly used in stem-cell replacement, as in the mouse studies I
mentioned. Heterochronic transplantation is a fancy way to say that we are transplanting your young cells to your older self. My cryopreserved stem cells are now 3.5 years younger than I am. Some clinical applications for these cells have been approved in Canada, the EU, Japan, Australia, and other countries. These are for conditions like Crohn’s, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s, and to improve organ transplant. However, many more treatments are still in the clinical development phase in the US and elsewhere. We expect their uses to continue to expand for many years to come. More work needs to be done before we are doing heterochronic transplantation in humans. However, work continues quickly apace. I want to use the cells I stored for heterochronic transplantation. That is why I stored mine, and why my
wife stored hers. I should mention that we divide your cryopreserved cells in several tubes. You don’t just have one future use. Also, the stem cells can be grown and expanded in the laboratory, which makes the supply potentially quite large.
I took this from your impressive bio: "Dr. Katakowski was first to demonstrate that microRNA functions as an intercellular communication molecule between brain tumor cells. This work led to his finding that bone marrow MSCs communicate with the nervous system via blood-born
exosomes. Dr. Katakowski's hypothesis that bone marrow cell degradation contributes to aging and age-related disease is the founding principle of Forever Labs."
What are some of the latest findings in this field, and what would be some good resources you'd recommend for people that might want to learn more about bone marrow cell preservation?
Thanks. That microRNA-transfer project was some of the scientific work that I am most proud of. That research was featured on the cover of the preeminent journal, Cancer Research. Cells vigorously transfer molecules between each other, and it wasn’t until recently appreciated just how important RNA transfer is, or the contribution of exosomes (biological transfer packages) to intercellular communication. MSCs are very active exporters of RNA and exosomes, which underpins their therapeutic effects. Unfortunately, there aren’t many quality resources for
non-scientists when it comes to stem cells, or their cryopreservation. Reading abstracts on PubMed can give you a good impression of where the science is at. Here’s a cool recent article describing the life-extending effects of young bone marrow transplantation in mice:
Forever Labs collects and preserves stem cells from 2 sources: bone marrow and adipose (fat) tissue. How long do these procedures generally take, and what kind of feedback do you get from Forever Labs clients?
We can collect MSCs from bone marrow or adipose tissue (fat). To collect bone marrow, a physician draws a small amount from the back of your hip bone. The procedure is quick and performed using local anesthetic. Due to the anesthetic you don’t feel pain, but some feel a weird cramping sensation for several seconds during the draw. I felt it. It wasn’t bad. Most people say that it was far less uncomfortable than they anticipated. To be honest, I’d rather have my bone marrow collected again than have my teeth cleaned. It’s much faster, and less
uncomfortable in my opinion. Also, you get a store of stem cells that no longer age.
For fat, we are collecting cells from people that have had a liposuction or similar fat collection procedure. In these cases, people are typically scheduled to have the procedure anyway, and have opted to collect their stem cells at the same time. Otherwise, the fat and the stem cells within end up in the trash, which is a lost opportunity. I haven’t had a liposuction, but I am tempted to do it, just to get the experience. I have a low BMI, but surprisingly, physicians can collect an adequate amount of fat from even slim individuals. Our clients that are collecting stem cells from fat are often excited that they can get the benefit of stem cell storage from something they were doing anyway.
How does bone marrow cell preservation differ from other types of cell preservation techniques?
Stem cell preservation (from bone marrow or fat) is actually not a new science. The technology has improved significantly over time, but fundamentally hasn’t changed for more than 30 years. It is important that the cells are maintained at the appropriate temperature, kept sterile, and cooled at the optimal rate, and with the appropriate cell and cryoprotectant concentrations. We test the cells that we freeze to ensure that our clients have viable cells in storage.
I love this idea of "storing at any age." What have been the ranges of ages you've seen thus far at Forever Labs?
I believe that our youngest client was 18 years old. My mother is among our oldest clients, she banked when she was 70. Research indicates that MSCs continue to decline with age, and that their decline accelerates the older you get. In a perfect world, we’d probably all store our young
biology in our late teens. However, your 50-year-old stem cells are likely to be of far better quality than your 70-year-old stem cells. My banked cells are 40. I imagine that one day, cryopreserving our young biology will be a cornerstone of good medicine. I expect health
insurance companies will underwrite the costs for the benefits that young biology brings.
For someone who might feel it's too late to do something like Forever Labs, what would you say to change their mind?
Do you expect to be around in 10 years? Give a gift to your 10-year older self. Bank your stem cells!
Besides the work you're doing, what are some other innovations in health and science that you're following along with?
I’m fascinated with longevity medicine in general. If good medicine is the restoration of health, then great medicine is the preservation of health. Stem cell replacement is just one tool that we will likely use to extend our healthy lifespan. Another such technology is senolytics. Senolytics are compounds that remove old and damaged stem cells from your body. Old stem cells not only cease to function well, they can dysfunction, and become a liability. In fact, I see it likely that we will couple heterochronic transplantation with a senolytic therapy. It’ll be like a stem cell oil change: out with the old, in with the new.
Since founding Forever Labs, I’ve become friends with Dr. Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation. I give Aubrey great credit for outlining a framework for longevity medicine by identifying the most significant age-related dysfunctions of our biology that must be addressed to preserve health. Aubrey did so long before longevity medicine was cool. Read his book, Ending Aging. It will set the table for what we and others in the space are working on.
What's coming up next for you that you're most excited about?
Forever Labs is continuing to expand its operations, and that keeps me very busy. That said, in addition to expanding our banking services, we have been conducting research regarding stem cell expansion and rejuvenation. In short, we are working on ways to make the most of the cells that we cryopreserve. Can we remove the biologically oldest and most damaged cells from those we collect? Can we rejuvenate the cells that we collect as we grow them in the lab for a future therapy? We think the answer is yes. We are working on it.
How can we best stay up-to-date with you?
I post my Forever Labs related thoughts on the Forever Labs blog.
I’m also just getting active on Twitter (https://twitter.com/MarkKatakowski). It’s a personal account, so I am not always speaking in my capacity at Forever Labs on it. Such is the nature of communication these days. I do share my paintings there. You don’t need art school to paint!
Thanks, MountainMom! It’s difficult to predict the progress of therapeutics, especially for a treatment like heterochronic transplantation, which is currently in the animal-based research phase. The rate of MSC therapeutic development makes me quite optimistic, but I am hesitant to make predictions. The administration is likely to be intravenous, as many of the MSCs introduced by i.v. return to where they originate, and many MSC therapies in development for age-related diseases are administered this way. I will say that I am keen on using my own cells for heterochronic transplantation, and I do predict that I will be able to do so in a safe and efficacious manner. In fact, we hope to facilitate it by partnering in a clinical trial. I’d love to be able to say “In 10 years we will be doing this...”, but that wouldn’t be an honest answer. I do believe that having cells that are 10 years younger will be an asset however, whether for heterochronic transplantation, or treatment for injury or disease.