Preserving Today’s Cells to Cure the Diseases of Tomorrow
By Lisa Sadach
Science and medicine are moving to eradicate and prevent diseases at an exceptional rate, but we’re still waiting for many cures. For every person who lives long enough to reap the benefits of medical advancements, there are thousands who could, or have missed out by a few years or even just months.
Losing the race against time and technology is a driving force behind Acorn Biolabs in Toronto, a pioneer in the cryopreservation of cells. The cell collection and preservation system was started by bioengineers Steven ten Holder, Drew Taylor, and Patrick Pumputis. It is designed to preserve live, healthy cells for use in future regenerative treatments, genetic analysis and provide a way to literally freeze time on a cellular level.
With so many rapid advancements in medical technology, why put in the effort to freeze your cells now? The answer is as simple as it is potentially devastating: when it comes to cells’ regenerative properties, youth matters. Taylor, who was first drawn to regenerative medicine while working at Mount Sinai Hospital and while earning his Biomedical Engineering PhD from the University of Toronto, experienced firsthand what a difference young cells make in regenerative treatment.
After a great deal of progress was made in re-growing cartilage in animal models, Taylor’s team moved on to human subjects who were largely elderly patients. “There were hurdles, and we did a tremendous amount of work looking at different reasons. My work showed the influence of age. When we had younger cells, they grew much better,” Taylor recounts. ”There are groups all over at different universities and in regenerative medicine companies that are all approaching problems like re-growing human hearts and using your own skin cells to treat Parkinson’s … and it was upsetting because I saw this unfortunate problem unfolding: precisely when we need our cells the most, when we’re older and sick, our cells are at their lowest therapeutic capacity.”
From a data standpoint, ten Holder adds that preserving cells before they age or become diseased “means that you’re not losing the information that makes up what a young cell is. A cell has information that far outstrips the amount of information any given computer, or arguably even the entire internet has. It’s such a complex system and we have yet to understand it entirely. So, protecting cells from data loss is, in part, our business. The data analytics that can come from having a bank for your youngest cells is incredible.”
It’s also important to note that “many of the next-generation cell analytics depend on changes over time, so having your live cells banked will enable you to have this important comparison point,” ten Holder says.
Why Today’s Cells are Tomorrow’s Best Cure
Along with capturing cells at their youngest and healthiest, Acorn allows for your own cells to be available for future therapeutic endeavors. As regenerative medicine continues to advance, organs on demand, cell-based therapeutics, and stem cell therapies are all possible from your own cellular material. Having our own cells will eliminate a variety of issues that can come from attempting therapy with cells from another donor.
Just like with organ donation, cell donation opens the possibility for rejection and complications from immunosuppression, assuming a perfect match can even be found. Using your own cells changes all that, and you access them immediately without waiting for the right donor.
Winning the Race Against Time
Despite some signs pointing to older cells having less regenerative abilities, Acorn’s cryopreservation is not out of the question for older individuals. Though it is not yet certain if age or disease will be a bigger factor in cell viability, it seems most important to simply preserve them as soon as possible.
Taylor’s own children, ages two, nine, and twelve, recently had their cells preserved. “Regardless of your age, your cells are the healthiest they will be today, and especially before you do get sick,” Taylor says. “So, you really want to be banking them not only before age, but also before the onset of disease.“
Telomere: The Crystal Ball Inside your Cells
Acorn also gives clients a wealth of knowledge and data about their cells to use in the here and now along with ongoing data about cell health that can help people understand themselves better, and even develop a personalized course of action for improving one’s health.
As the company grows, they will obtain more genomes–raw genetic material to gather data from. “In a way, you can really look at Acorn as a co-op: we are all contributing to the system and individually getting benefits back,” Taylor says.
“As Acorn’s client base grows, they will have the ability to analyse, in an anonymous way, and apply machine learning algorithms to the data to discover more individual health insights.”
Accessible, Affordable, Purely Canadian
Until recently, cell preservation and extraction involved invasive and costly measures such as bone marrow harvesting, liposuction and venous blood draws. Acorn changed all of this by completing simple and effective extraction through hair follicle samples. While there are growing concerns over the state of healthcare in the U.S. where profits are often considered before patient welfare, Acorn has adopted a Canadian mindset about their service: one where they strive for “health equality” versus maximizing financial gain.
“We wanted to drive down the cost as much as possible so that we can make this accessible because I think, inherently, in our bones, we feel that healthcare is a basic human right, not something that you have to pay above and beyond for,” ten Holder says. The Acorn team has brought the cost down to a few hundred dollars for sample collection and a monthly storage fee that is “about the price of Netflix.”
Extraction can be performed in a matter of minutes through a non-invasive procedure at the Acorn facility in Toronto, or at one of the conferences and events where the team provides discounted cell collection on-site.
In each case, the cell-rich follicles are harvested “as if they will be used to save your life one day,” says ten Holder. “We run a full clean room and freeze your cells in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius.” A proprietary transport system is used to keep the cells alive and healthy until they can be placed in the secure, temperature-controlled containment system for future use.
Gaining Quality and Quantity of Life
“Our lifespans are cut short and so is the knowledge we hold. I see that extension of productivity as one of the biggest positive changes that can come from cell preservation and regenerative medicine,” ten Holder says.
This is in stark contrast to many other medical advancements that have extended physical life without addressing cognitive deterioration or abilities far beyond keeping a patient breathing. A future that, as ten Holder describes, “has the potential to disrupt and change the massive end-of-life industry which includes hospice, assisted living facilities, and similar services while potentially growing and expanding other industries as we have more quality years.“ Cell preservation and data collection could also mean a future where we eradicate certain illnesses or prevent them before they can cause damage. Taylor, in fact, sees a future where we have the “ability to predict disease before the first symptoms even show. And we have your most viable cells on hand to approach that using next generation analytics and regenerative medicine techniques to stop a disease from ever forming or to replace that faulty organ before it ever affects your health. Ultimately, the power of these tools in conjunction with big data and machine learning will allow us, in my mind, to eliminate every disease one by one. It will take time but we’re on the right path to doing that.”
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