This blog post, analyzing the potential of telomere length measurement, reproduces an article published on February 18, 2017 in Sinc Agency, based on an interview with Steve Matlin, CEO of Life Length. The original article can be accessed by clicking here.
Expert in Finances, with an MBA from the Harvard Business School, Stephen Matlin (Los Angeles, 1967), decided six years ago to start up with his partners a scientific company in Spain. Today Life Length is a pioneer in the world with its technology to measure telomere length and telomerase activity, biomarkers related to cell aging and the development of age related diseases, such as cancer, when getting critically short.
Stephen Matlin is CEO and founding partner of Life Length. Created in Madrid in September 2010 as a spin-off of the National Center for Oncological Research (CNIO), the firm is the world leader in the development of advanced analysis to measure the length of telomeres, DNA and protein structures that are responsible for chromosome protection.
Telomeres are often compared to the plastic covers at the ends of the shoelaces, whose function is to prevent them from fraying. As Matlin explains to Sinc, “these biomarkers allow us to know exactly the biological age of people and their critical shortening contributes to the appearance of age-related diseases“.
The person in charge tells that the measurement technique used by his company was initially developed at the CNIO by the team of María Blasco, currently director of this institution and one of the most important experts in the field of telomeres and telomerase in the world, and in its relation to aging and cancer.
Blasco, who has already dissociated himself from Life Length – due to incompatibility with his current position – “was one of the people involved in the formation of the company,” says the manager of this firm, which has laboratories in the Science Park of the Autonomous University, in Cantoblanco (Madrid).
“What we have done in these six years,” he adds, “is to improve and industrialise the test we have called Telomere Analysis Technology (TAT). This test, which quantifies individual telomere length in blood samples and in cells in culture, facilitates accurate measurement by attaching a fluorescent marker to telomeres, whose size is approximately 10 nanometers. ”
Telomere testing and age related pathologies
Aging, says Matlin, “is a very heterogeneous process, it is different for each person, it depends on genetic factors, but also on the environment and lifestyle. Our test determines the level of cellular aging and doctors are already using it to treat patients according to their biological age and not just based on the chronological one. ”
Telomere analysis of Life Length -he explains- “can detect early on the risks of age-related diseases many years before what is seen in metabolic tests. The critical shortening of telomeres is the factor that generates cellular senescence and, therefore, the loss of cell renewal capacity and aging organs and tissues. ”
Thus, “a person of 40 chronological years, but with a biological age of 50, should begin to have colonoscopy tests much sooner than would normally be advised,” says Matlin.
Life Length´s TAT test is used by doctors from 35 different countries. “It is part of a complete analysis that is done annually. In this way, you can see the rhythm of cellular aging and if the measures to improve the lifestyle that have been scheduled are working “.
Doctors who offer the firm’s test in their clinics, extract blood samples from their patients and send them to the company’s laboratories.
These kits, says Matlin, “are very simple. They consist of a 10ml tube for the extraction of blood, a safety bag to insert the tube, a cooling gel that must be frozen 24 hours in advance, and forms and labels to ensure the anonymity of the patient. The package then arrives by international courier to our laboratories. ”
In addition to doctors, the firm has as customers pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of nutritional supplements and vitamin compounds, which use their test to validate the effectiveness of their products.
Participating in clinical trials with the latest telomere testing technology
Stephen Matlin points out that Life Length is currently participating in several clinical trials. One of them with an American pharmaceutical multinational – which can not reveal the name “by a very strict confidentiality agreement” – which is among the largest in the world. The firm is using the technology of the Spanish company to measure the length of telomeres in the tests of an anticancer drug “whose mechanism of action is telomerase inhibition“.
Telomerase, “he explains,” is the enzyme responsible for repairing and lengthening telomeres, but the gene that produces it is inactivated in adult individuals. However, it is present in tumors and can turn cancer cells – which divide indefinitely – into immortal ones. Therefore, one way to combat many types of cancer is to interrupt this cycle of cell reproduction by suppressing the expression of this enzyme. ”
According to Matlin, his firm collaborates with this multinational “in a large clinical trial to check the effectiveness of the suppression of the expression of this enzyme in cancer treatments, which involves more than 1,000 people. And all the tests are done in our laboratories with our telomere analysis technolgy. ”
In addition, Life Length has a very active participation in academic studies. “We are collaborating on multiple Horizon 2020 European projects. One of those that are already finished, called EuroBATS, has studied the similarities and differences in the health of 8,000 identical twins, led by Kings College, in London. We take care of measuring the telomeres of these people to see their level of cellular aging, “he says.
This technology, is also being used in another European initiative called Brain Age, led by the University of Jena (Germany), which focuses on acquiring knowledge to understand aging in neurodegenerative diseases. Another project in which he collaborates is FRAILomic, led by the University Hospital of Getafe (Madrid), which researches biomarkers to identify factors that turn fragility into disability, all related to the aging of the population.
Lowering cancer follow-up tests adding telomere associated variables
But the most ambitious project Life Length is working on is ONCOCHECK. The company has received 3.1 million euros from the European Horizon 2020 program to carry out a clinical study over the next two years with 3,300 patients, including children, in 32 hospitals throughout Spain.
The objective, says Matlin, is to demonstrate the clinical usefulness of the TAT test for the measurement of telomere length as a prognostic biomarker in the treatment of different types of cancer: lung, prostate and leukemia. “And all with a blood test at a cost of 349 euros, which is intended to cheapen to 200 euros, compared to other current monitoring tests that cost between 2,000 and 5,000 euros and also require complex and specialized equipment ”
According to the CEO, “there are more than 7,000 scientific publications that have shown that the shortening of telomeres is a fundamental cause in the development of cancer. This is already indisputable. ”
Matlin stresses that “cancer is already the leading cause of death ahead of cardiovascular diseases in the Western world.” On average, he adds, “the cost of annual cancer treatment is around one trillion euros in Spain and will go further because longevity is the first risk factor for cancer: when telomeres become critically short, they occur mutations. ”
Life Length technology -continued- “is the only one at the moment that allows telomeres to be measured with great precision and in a simple way, that is why the EU has granted us this project. The information we give to the oncologist is very useful so that it can offer a more personalized treatment to each patient “.
For example, says the person in charge, “approximately 50% of patients with lung cancer do not respond favorably to the first phase treatments, which are radiotherapy and chemotherapy. If the oncologist had beforehand the telomere length information-the shorter, the more risky-he could decide whether to perform these treatments or directly operate to remove the tumor before it grows further. ”
Matlin hopes that ONCOCHECK will end up becoming a regular test in cancer treatments: “When someone is detected a tumor routinely, their telomeres are measured for a better protocol in the treatment.”
In addition to the use of the test in oncology, the firm is working to apply it in other areas such as infertility and neurodegenerative diseases, “where information on the length of telomeres is essential as well”.
Certifications from US and European agencies
The company works with an automated and robotized high-capacity system that makes it possible to analyze large volumes of samples in a short period of time. “We are the only company capable of measuring chromosome telomeres by chromosome,” says Matlin.
TAT has received the highest certification from the Center for Medicare & Medical Services (CMS), the US Government agency responsible for overseeing clinical laboratory testing in that country. It has also obtained ISO 15189 accreditation, recognized in more than 60 countries for quality diagnostic tests.
This test, which has already been patented, “is used to determine the biological age of people, which sometimes does not coincide with the chronological age. That information is in the length of the telomeres, “says Matlin.
Each time a cell divides it duplicates its DNA packets, but the ends of the chromosomes, that is to say the telomeres, are not copied until the end, getting shorter as consequence. And “the older a cell is, the more divisions it has made and the shorter its telomeres are”, he adds.
“We have been pioneers in the world in creating a business based on the measurement of these biomarkers,” says the CEO. More than 20,000 clinical studies have shown that people with short telomeres have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes 2, fertility problems, arteriosclerosis and, of course, cancer. Accordingly, monitoring the length of your telomeres can save your life“.
The challenge of innovating in Spain
The CEO and co-founder of Life Length believes it has been a great challenge to create a scientific company in the field of life sciences in Spain. “It is difficult anywhere, but here we are far from the great biotechnology research centers that exist, for example, in the United Kingdom, Switzerland or the United States. Therefore, it is more complicated to reach the favorable environment that exists in these countries. ”
The firm has been fully financed with private funds from the founding partners, among which is the Botín Foundation. “Today, after six years of effort and 9 million euros invested, without any public support, we have made this Spanish company a world reference” he concludes.