If you’re familiar with Koreans or Korean culture, you have probably heard of Hanyak (한약) which is derivative of substances like ginseng and other herbs, but primarily consists of a root extract called astragalus membranaceus. Hanyak is a traditional Korean medicine which is in the form of a brown liquid that is bitter tasting and comes from a long history of folk tales about how it is able to improve the health of sick people. In Korean culture, everyone from grandmothers to aunts to mothers have probably made their children drink the brown liquid when they were ill.
I remember as a child, growing up in the United States, that my own mother would make me drink it for two weeks once or twice a year. I recall asking many times why I had to drink such a bitter tasting substance and because it was a kind of spoken knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation, no one could really provide any sound reasoning as to why it was particularly beneficial to drink aside from anecdotal information. Currently, hanyak is available in a variety of forms in Korean supermarkets and drug stores, and targeted towards people with the flu/cold or as a hangover cure.
Many different forms of hanyak are sold commercially over-the-counter at drug stores and supermarkets throughout South Korea.
However, its main ingredient, astralagus membranaceus (also 黃芪 in Chinese) has been the recent subject of many interesting longevity studies. It appears that a small molecule activator of telomerase called TA-65 that has been isolated from the astralagus root is able to increase average telomere length and decrease the percentage of critically short telomeres and repair DNA damage in both animal and human studies.
Telomeres are the caps on the end DNA that stabilises the chromosome region, gene regulation and cellular senescence. Without telomere length maintenance, DNA will undergo damage; however, the downside is that increased telomerase activity in cancer cells can also allow for their proliferation.
Increasing telomere length has been associated with anti-ageing and induced immortality, whilst also potentially allowing cancer cells to proliferate. However, it also appears that astralagus concomittantly has a cancer checking mechanism in which another compound in astralagus has anti-tumorigenic effects by inducing apoptosis (cell death) of cancer cells. This has been hypothesized due to astralagus’ activation and restoration of impaired T-cells in both humans and animals.
There has been an influx of startups and companies in the longevity biotech sector that have also been the subject of controversy. Bio Viva’s founder Elizabeth Parrish gave herself two experimental gene therapies in 2015 order to lengthen her telomeres targeting muscle function. Many companies in the nutraceutical sector have patented a formulation using the TA-65 compound into vitamin supplements and skin care lines. Telomerase activators are the main subject of research for companies like Sierra Sciences, which has been in the longevity sector since 2009 in which their primarily goal has been to cure ageing.
A classic novel about the transformation of immortal humans: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and the social and moral consequences of attaining immortality.
The Postmortal by Drew Magary (2011). A novel about the contemporary world in which doctors sell gene therapy that induces immortality on the black market.
However, in Korean and Chinese cultures, the astralagus root extract is only taken during times of illnesses and not for longevity benefits. This is because astralagus also induces the excess production of estrogen in the body. Hence, it is only taken when people are ill, for a couple of weeks at maximum once or twice a year, whereas nutraceutical companies, such as TA Sciences, are marketing their products for daily consumption. In addition, TA-65 is an isolated compound of astralagus, but there are other compounds in astralagus with anti-tumorgenesis effects which are currently unknown.
When whole foods, and herbs or roots are taken, the symbiotic beneficial compounds work in conjunction which may improve people’s health, but when single compounds are isolated and consumed, it may sometimes lead to an imbalance in the body, which Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners call excessive Yang or excessive Yin, which depletes the Qi energy, or in biomedical terms, impair the immune system through nutritional deficiencies and imbalances.
Herbs and Prescriptions by Ang Wang (1740, China, 6 volumes). The first volume includes drawings of herbs, roots and minerals. The remaining volumes cover pharmacology, and the therapeutic uses of the materia medica.
Studies in Acupuncture (Gorui Shimpo, 合類鍼法竒貨) by Hidetomi Watanabe (1679, Tokyo, 5 volumes). This section of the book details how acupuncture combined with herbs can treat all kinds of diseases, including those with parasites.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a fascinating area of study, with its history spanning over 5000 years in observation and treatment. With our current advances in epigenetics and cognitive neuroscience and understanding of how expression of genes can be altered by the foods we consume, it appears that modern medicine is now catching up with knowledge of the ancient medical practitioners by understanding the mechanism of how compounds in natural foods and herbs interact with the human body.
Another interesting startup in the longevity biotech sector is through the use of peptides. A peptide is a chain of two or more amino acids. The research scientists at MIT, Rutledge Ellis-Behnke and Gerald E. Schneider worked with colleagues in Hong Kong and China to inject peptides into sites of brain injuries in the animal model, in which they were able to reconnect parts of the brain affected by trauma or stroke. The peptides assemble into a nanofiber mesh of tiny interwoven fibers termed “nano neuro knitting” which allows the neurons to be able to grow through them. The nanofiber scaffold allows for an environment for axons to regenerate and knit the brain tissue together, and then breaks down into natural amino acids for the surrounding tissues to utilise. This research not only has implications in neurodegenerative diseases but could also have applications in organ regeneration, skin regeneration and others in which existing cells can regenerate through the assistance of peptides that form a nanofiber mesh.
A still from the film, Kingsman: Golden Circle (2017). A British agent is injected with a substance called an alpha gel, then nanites and microbots are utilised to repair trauma to his brain. This technology description is similar to nano neuro knitting, in which researchers at MIT were able to repair brain trauma in the animal model by utilising peptides that assemble into a nanofiber mesh inside the brain in 2006.
Using an aspect of this peptide technology are Bioquark and ReAnima Advanced Biosciences, two startups that have been somewhat controversial in their approach.
Bioquark focuses on bioquantines found in various species of animals in which they are able to regenerate tissues and organs, such salamanders which can regrow their limbs and brain tissue. Currently Bioquark and ReAnima Advanced Biosciences are involved in a proof of concept study to be launched in July 2018 in which they will utilise subjects who are technically “brain-dead” and procure stem cells from the patient’s blood, then utilising the stem cells, along with bioquantines into a peptide solution to be injected into the spinal cord. The researchers hope that this can reverse brain death and essentially, “bring them back to life” through neuroregeneration.
Although not without controversy, we are now entering a new era of biomedical research in which old traditions must be questioned, by challenging old hypotheses with the testing of new ideas. Ironically, it also brings us closer to the wisdom of the ancients 5000 years ago, in which their documentation of medical practice, treatment and history now coincides with modern science and physics.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice and is for educational purposes only.
By Sierra Choi
This article originally appeared in www.globalfounders.london