Episode #104: Dr. Ben Van Handel – Stem Cell Scientist
This show’s guest is stem cell scientist Dr. Ben Van Handel. Dr. Ben is not your typical research scientist who spent 10 years in the lab developing small molecules to treat and prevent osteoarthritis.
Dr. Ben is an animated, passionate, fun scientist who is bringing his expertise to skincare.
We talk about stem cells: how they work, and ways we can make sure they stay as healthy as possible. Did you know there is an entirely new field of scientific study called INFLAMMAGING? Dr. Ben and his partner Amir Nobakht, MD have created Heraux, (pronounced HERO) a scientifically based line created around the molecule HX-1- with the hope of keeping our inflammaging slower. This is a man who loves his science, peloton bike, dog, and a crunchy peanut butter sandwich each day. I mean who wants to think about food or take time to navigate a lengthy menu? Except when you talk to him about why he roasts his own coffee. I had so much fun doing this interview.
Listen to the episode here:
- Being Smart in School [00:02:30]
- Understanding Stem Cells [00:11:04]
- International Society for Stem Cell Research [00:13:35]
- Inflammaging [00:20:48]
- Benefits of Excercise [00:24:09]
- Heraux: From Scientist to Entrepreneur [00:34:14]
- Skin Circadian Rhythm [00:51:38]
- Future Research [00:55:10]
Dr. Ben Van Handel – Stem Cell Scientist
My guest is Dr. Ben Van Handel. He is a stem cell scientist and entrepreneur. He studied for ten years how novel small molecules tried to treat and prevent osteoarthritis and that led him to a skincare line called Heraux. I was concerned about this interview because dealing with people like Dr. Ben, sometimes they’re so smart and it’s hard for them to relate or explain the science in a comprehensive way. This is one of the most fun interviews I’ve done. He is a little bit wild, fun, and so passionate about what he’s doing that I enjoyed this and I learned a lot.
We talked about how stem cells work and the things we can do to support them and how that all functions. Like so many people like Dr. Ben who knows so much, they always have fun little quirks. This is a guy who eats a peanut butter sandwich every day. Enjoy.
Dr. Ben Van Handel, how does a young man have such a serious grown-up name? It’s amazing.
Our names are coming from our parents.
When you were a child, were they like, “Ben Van Handel, can you come up here, please?”
Yeah, I got called to the principal’s office.
No, you didn’t. You never got in trouble.
For being too smart and correcting the teachers? Come on. Tell me.
No, it was more of maybe sassing the teacher.
That’s the same thing. Questioning them.
When you’re growing up and you’re in these tiny little towns and you’re moving around a lot, you have to find that thing that’s your niche. “How am I going to stand out from everybody else?” Being smart in school and school is not cool.
I never suffered that problem.
Where did you go to school? Did you go to big places?
No, it wasn’t that. I wasn’t smart so I don’t stand out for those reasons. Come on. Let’s talk about that. It’s so funny, I’m tall so that wasn’t hugely popular. You get into science, I hit a ball because I couldn’t do much else. What is that like as a kid? Do you get to a place in an age where you go, “This is a gift.” Do you think, “Why have I been cursed, and now I’m on the outside of all the club?” What was that like growing up?
It definitely started with, “This is a curse. I need to hide this. I need to do other things to fit in with other people.” As you’ll learn, I’m socially awkward, so that will become apparent. It’s just one linear trajectory from being a child to now that I’ve always been socially awkward. When you’re moving around these little towns, my dad was a contract engineer so he would be recruited to an area to work on a contract. We’d be there for eighteen months or sometimes longer. One time we lived in Minnesota for almost seven years and that was great, and then we moved to somewhere else.
I have one friend who I’ll introduce to a new group and they’ll be like, “Are they getting it yet?” At least the seven years, they were like, “We get Ben. We get what he’s about.”
Gabby, that was the best school that I went to. There was this program for kids that liked school and liked learning. Believe it or not, Cloquet, Minnesota have this little program and Mrs. Carp was the administrator. She was awesome. That was the first time that I felt encouraged on the academic side. We moved from there to a place that was completely the opposite, and then I definitely reverted back. I missed having the capacity to exercise those muscles.
It wasn’t until my third year of college that I finally realized, “Something’s a little different about me.” It took me a long time to realize that there was this responsibility that’s incumbent with that. If you’re going to have a capacity that is different in some way and it can be beneficial, you have to exercise it. That is now part of being you from now on.
My parents are incredible. They’re so practical and they definitely knew that they could see me in groups with other kids. You have so much more experience when you’re a parent. You’re looking at how your kid is interacting with others and you’re like, “I know this is going to be hard for you but there’s potential here and it’s going to get better when you get older.” They tried to set me up to bind that on my own in the future. We had a lot of ups and downs in between. We have a great relationship now even despite the ups and downs. I admire them, for having a parent a child like me.
It’s not a child like you. The languages are so different. You’re a gift. When we have children that speak a different language, I have three daughters, we also learned so much from that situation. Do you have any siblings?
Yeah, I have a sister. She’s a chemical engineer.
What’s going on?
We ask that all the time. In my entire extended family, my dad is 1 of 8 and my mom is 1 of 3. There’s a lot. My sister was one of the first ones to even go to college, and then certainly I was the one. It was a unique situation. Maybe it’s because my parents moved around a lot and they were exposed to things outside of that area, different ways of doing things. My dad was a professional. He was an engineer. You didn’t have to go to college back in those days to be an engineer, but he worked with people that had been exposed to that higher education and he brought some of that home, and an amazing work ethic. They were on my sister and I all time to do the most that we could.
What’s interesting is you often think about environments. I meet people all the time and you think these are brilliant people that were either not exposed to the opportunity, someone didn’t set them up. It goes back and forth. You go from Northern Michigan, and then UCLA, and then USC. When you were in academia, what was turning you on? Tell me how you chose that path. Using academics as a job is a fascinating path for regular folks like us.
For me, I got lucky to find the thing. I get up every morning, I wake up, and I’m like, “My life is awesome.” I’m so excited because I don’t know what I’m going to find that day. It’s not, “I need to go to an office and I know that I have a bunch of spreadsheets waiting for me.” We’re asking questions about the fundamental nature of our bodies, and then trying to encourage different outcomes so that people who need things desperately have something to look for, some hope in their lives.
I’m one of those people. Coming from athletics, believe me, we’re always tapping into people like you. Because if you’re talking about certain types of treatments and modalities, these things are part and parcel. They’re totally connected. It makes a lot of sense. In this journey, how did you go, “I know what I want to study.”
In my junior year in undergrad, I had that realization, “I haven’t even tried.” I’ve done nothing. I didn’t go to class. I showed up for the test.
What were you doing?
Were you partying?
I was partying a little bit and this was still a carryover in trying to find my social niche.
We all want those tribes.
I didn’t realize you could get some semblance of that validation yet from yourself and/or from a professional career. I had no idea. I was just fumbling my way through. I woke up one morning in my junior and it was an epiphany like, “I’m not even trying. I do well. What would happen if I tried? What could occur? What could I achieve?” That started this journey.
I got into running. I started doing a ton of trail running up in Northern Michigan University. It’s in Marquette so it’s on Lake Superior. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful and there are all these great things available. I started to avail myself of other activities and that allowed me to start figuring out, “What do I want to do academically? How am I going to push myself and find out what it is that I should be doing?”
Initially, I was a history major when I got to college. It started with this big funnel that were all these things not science-related. I eventually settled on biology, but then I met a couple of folks in the chemistry department, these professors like Dr. Paulson, Frankie McCormick, Suzanne Williams, and John Rivers in the biology department as well. Maybe they saw there might be something there and they pushed me. You’ve been there long enough and you’ve seen so many students. This is a small school. You go there to teach. You don’t necessarily go there to do research like at UCLA or what have you.
You see enough students over time and you’re like, “Okay.” Even in my own TA-ing, teaching assistance, working with different professors over my academic career, I started to understand that a little bit. Picking out the kids that have more there and are willing to give it. I took a year in between undergrad at NMU and going to graduate school at UCLA.
When you left UCLA, I know you then went to USC, but in your mind, where were you going and what were you going to do?
I got to UCLA in 2006 and then I defended my thesis and graduated in 2011.
What was your thesis on? I can ask and I probably won’t understand, but I have to.
You’ll definitely be able to understand. I was investigating how genes control the fate of stem cells. If we activate this specific segment of DNA, can it change the fate of a stem cell? Is there a window that is allowed, like you would turn this on and something new happens? Or is it always like that, knowing that there is this capacity to alter the trajectory of stem cells or support them or enhance them? Once I learned that in my PhD, I was like, “This is what I’m doing the rest of my life.”
A couple of things to give people a basic understanding. You said it beautifully already, stem cells are there to help regenerate your tissue. Maybe explain to people, do we have an abundance of them when we’re young? Where are they? Do we produce more? Are we with a fixed number? Maybe you could break that down for people.
You hit right on it, we have a finite number of stem cells and they are established early on. They have two jobs throughout our lifetimes, to self-renew, essentially make as exact of copies of themselves as they can, and then also to support the continued health of our tissue. Let’s think about the skin for example. Skin stem cells, there are several layers under the skin where they hang out. They hang out in something we call a niche.
These are special cells and they require a special environment. If you perturb the environment, let’s say inflammation is bad, that can alter the trajectory of that stem cell. It can start making crappier copies of itself, and then that is an enhanced aging process. That stem cell eventually is no longer a stem cell and you can’t replace it.
The other stem cells try to compensate by making more copies of themselves, but it’s like a Xerox machine. Every time you make a copy, you’re losing some fidelity. It’s a Law of Nature and Thermodynamics about how you package DNA. We have two meters or something of DNA in each cell. Each time you divide, you have to unpack that. You have to make sure it doesn’t get tangled up, all these horrible things that can go wrong if the stem cell has to self-renew more than it normally would. If there’s stress on the system, that is going to be detrimental to the health of your stem cells and then by proxy, to the rest of your body.
Back to our skin stem cells, they’re there. They’re in their niche, and then they will either produce exact copies of themselves or exact as they can. Or they produce what we call a daughter cell, and then the daughter goes on to differentiate and make it, like in the example the skin, keratinocytes and it will undergo multiple divisions. From one stem cell, let’s say you get 132 keratinocytes, each time it produces a daughter cell or something like that. I made that up. I don’t remember. That’s why stem cells are so powerful because they have an exponential influence on what happens in the tissues in our bodies.
There is a common language around stem cell treatment, stem cells for your skin, stem cells for your joints, and all these things. Let’s say you go, “My knee is sore. I can go to Panama and get my stem cells.” Talk to me about that.
[bctt tweet=”There’s a 25% improvement that comes from just believing.”]
That’s awesome because it’s important. I talked about advocacy for science. There’s this group called the International Society for Stem Cell Research, ISSCR, and they put out guidelines for people that are non-scientists. That they can help to understand the kinds of things that are proven by data to be effective like, “It could be effective,” and then other scams. ISSCR check it out.
For me, I work on trying to understand how to influence and enhance stem cells in our bodies. People out there have tried to transplant stem cells from one source or another into a knee joint. The most successful form of stem cell transplantation that we have is blood stem cells, a bone marrow transplant. If you’re a younger person and you get leukemia, in the cultural reference, this makes sense. People have heard about this. That is a proven stem cell therapy.
For example, getting stem cells isolated. The whole definition of stem cells is an entirely different story that is probably far too technical. Isolating stem cells from fat, for example, and then injecting them into your knee and expecting to somehow cure your arthritis, I’m not convinced by the data that I’ve seen. I’m treating it too nicely. It’s BS. We’re not there yet to be able to show that that is something that’s going to be routinely effective.
Maybe for some people, 2 in 100, it’s curative. Great, we did something great. The majority of scientists are of the opinion, “Let’s do something that will work for 85% to 90% of the time.” That’s what clinical trials are about. That’s how the FDA makes sure that they don’t put their stamp on things that might be a little dubious.
It’s interesting because it’s tempting. Ultimately, there’s no downside. I love treatments when there’s no downside.
The placebo effect is giant. It’s so weird because I thought it was also garbage. I started reading into it, psychological studies, and behavioral studies, it’s a real thing. There’s a 25% improvement that comes from just believing.
For your science brain, were you like, “Really, people?”
Initially. To your credit, absolutely, I was like, “What in the hell is that?” Then I thought about it more. All the time, I’m convincing myself that I can do more than where I am at right now, whether it’s on the Peloton or in the lab asking better questions. Sometimes I make it. Sometimes I do get further and it’s like, “Maybe it’s not so unbelievable that if I believe that I go somewhere and get something injected into my knee, it’s going to benefit me, or at least the pain goes away.” Because then we like to feel like we’ve done something.
Belief, hope is all part of dreaming and expanding, so it makes sense it is powerful and effective in certain ways, but for scientists, they must be like, “Oh my gosh.”
It can be quite infuriating. I will acknowledge that.
Do you mean this guy believed that this happened? Stem cells, you do the experiment, turn off the gene, UCLA, and then you head to USC. You were talking about that professor that saw things in you and your parents did, too. We see our children and we love them and we are scared. There are nights you put your head on the pillow and you think, “I know they’re going to pull it.” Sometimes it takes longer than we think and we hope they don’t get hurt in the meantime, or whatever. You have to realize your parents probably have seen you more clearly than you’ve even seen yourself for a long time.
I feel like when somebody has dramatic gifts, like you have a dramatic gift with your intelligence, that’s harder to parent. It’s amazing and it’s going to be amazing. They’re going to make amazing adults, anything exaggerated, stubborn, having perseverance or adventurous or musical, whatever it is. It’s an ass kick when they’re young, but if allowed to blossom, it’s amazing. If we can figure it out as parents, we’d know that. You come out of USC and you’re going to be working in stem cells. How do you pick an application?
It was in my later days at UCLA and I met this professor, Dr. Denis Evseenko. He was focused on osteoarthritis and stem cells in the joint. My poor mom is one of these people and there are tons of people out there that there’s not a lot we can do for them. We can, for a while, mitigate pain but unfortunately, that’s not stopping the source of the pain, which is the degeneration of the cartilage. The cartilage wears down, and then you end up with just bone on bone.
I have a fake knee.
You had a replacement, but you’re still young. All the athletics, right?
Yeah. I got one at 46. It’s repetitive trauma. I always think about the hands.
The problem is therapeutically, we haven’t made any progress.
Why do you think that is?
It’s a complex issue. It’s enough that we haven’t been able to crack because there are so many different influences. Honestly, I don’t think it’s purely in the joint. There’s a lot of systemic factors that contribute to osteoarthritis. Let’s say in your case, you had a bad knee. Yours was an obvious cause as to what that is but for most people, they’re not like professional athletes that are doing amazing things all the time.
How do you analyze their genetics, their lifestyle, and all of these things?
This crazy stew that you’re talking about.
They’re being honest.
Pain is so subjective.
The pain scale.
All that. You know. You’ve been there. You’ve been working with orthopedic folks to try and evaluate that. Clearly, there are things happening outside the joint that are contributing to what’s going on inside the joint. What we decided to do was try and distill it down. Is there one axis that we could target that may have a broad impact on what’s happening in the joint? What we settled on was this field of research now called Inflammaging.
We even touched on, when I was blabbing about stem cells, how inflammation can accelerate the biological clock of stem cells and other cells in our body. We even talked about the niche. Stem cells need to hang out in a relatively protected environment but if that environment starts to get crappy, the stem cells feel it and they’re under stress so they try to react to the stress. If they’re constantly doing that, they get tired real fast.
If you can no longer keep up with the wear and tear on the articular surface, let’s say in your knee joint, the net result is going to be loss of the nice, thick protein layer that supports our articulating joints. Eventually, you’ll start losing cells, chondrocytes, the cells that make up cartilage. You’re talking bone on bone and that’s painful.
[bctt tweet=”Pain is so subjective.”]
It’s like hot metal, burning metal. I always say after doing the show, the two things that show it for me over and over are chronic inflammation and insulin resistance when I think about people’s overall health besides their mental health.
It’s a huge component. That’s another story for another time.
That’s another soup. It’s our food, our environment, our stress. People are living in this chronic inflammation non-stop. You can do it through exercise, through eating a certain way, trying to stay calm, and things like that. It’s an interesting thing. How do you unpeel that onion with people? For you, for example, now that you know so much about this, do you think to yourself, “I wonder if I’m creating stress on my stem cells with my peanut butter sandwich?” Because you know too much so you’re well-aware of everything you’re doing. The apple and the banana are not offending you. Do you think this is going to accumulate through time? Because you want to protect your stem cells.
I want to age slowly. I want to have the longest vitality span that I can.
We will do anything for our skin. Maybe it’s something identifiable, sun, smoking, pollution, air pollution, things like that.
There are also the internal stressors. They influence our skin aging as well. The skin is in the unenviable position of getting blasted from both sides.
When you personally think about your own inflammation, what are you doing to manage it?
Number one for me is exercise every day. First of all, because I’m also super high energy. I need to burn that off, otherwise, I don’t sleep because I’m too wired. I definitely exercise every day. For me having a plant-based diet was a good choice that I made without even knowing it.
Scientifically, remind people of the benefits of exercise. What does it do to your precious stem cells?
This is the cool thing. Your stem cells are like a rheostat. They have their finger on the pulse of the broader global things that are happening in your body because it’s their job to. It’s programmed into them. They’re hanging out there and they’ve got their ear to the wind listening as to what’s going on. It helps to demonstrate the point. They’re there and they’re constantly paying attention. They’re monitoring the balance in your bloodstream of pro-inflammatory factors and anti-inflammatory factors.
It’s their job to secrete things to moderate that, which is interesting so they can respond. Stem cells are not like this empty vessel that is only being dictated to. That’s not true. Like mesenchymal stem cells, things that people get injected into their knee joints, they have this impressive anti-inflammatory secretome capacity, ability to make proteins that calm down inflammatory factors.
To a point, stem cells are not only listening, but they’re also actively participating in the conversation. If the inflammatory milieu is too biased for too long to the pro-inflammatory end of the spectrum, the stem cells don’t regenerate in response to that. Instead, they’re like, “Screw this. I need to start hunkering down and protecting myself. I can’t respond to this. I cannot, in the face of this insult, continue to do what I’m supposed to do.” They stop producing daughter cells. They stop making good copies of themselves, so their DNA copying capacity, that Xerox machine, somebody made a crack in the screen at that point, so then each copy is way worse. That’s what they’re doing the entire time.
If we can keep that circulating balance of pro-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory within reason, and our body has a huge tolerance for a lot of variants in that but as we age, that tolerance declines. That’s why in the long run, the longer we can keep that medium range of balance between anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory, the longer our vitality span, our healthspan, and the slower we age.
Because we do want a little bit of inflammation. It’s not about no inflammation. It’s healthy. It’s important. It’s not about chronic inflammation. What does exercise whisper to your stem cells?
Exercise puts factors into your circulation saying, “I’m taking care of myself. I’m doing something positive for myself.”
Unless it’s crushing a 700-mile run.
That’s different. That’s an injury. That’s extreme exercise. Even those folks that do that have to build up to that because if they did it before that, it’d be bad all around. When cells, let’s say in your muscles, are under an appropriate amount of stress because they’re being exercised, there’s feedback to your brain that says, “Let’s secrete some endorphins because this is great. Let’s make this person feel good because then they’ll keep doing this.” Then there’s a point at which it gets not so great.
You need that. That’s important, especially when establishing habits, but then the muscle cells themselves, like your stem cells, know that they’re going to have to repair after that exercise. They start secreting anti-inflammatory, pro-regenerative factors that circulate throughout your body. It’s not local anymore. Because you’ve been exercising your gastrocnemius, it then goes to the stomach and your stem cells all over your body are like, “Hah.”
It’s such a great thing. Let’s say I have an injured left leg and I do leg extensions on my right leg. I still receive 25% of the benefit on my left leg. What does booze do to your stem cells?
When I was talking about tolerance, the stem cells have a capacity.
So a little is okay?
Yeah. Most things, it’s crazy. Our body has the ability to deal with in moderation. I feel like that’s an old wives’ tale or whatever. It’s definitely real. Myriad scientists all over have understood that reasonable perturbations in complex systems like our body and our stem cells are tolerated. As we age, the tolerance decreases because there is this cumulative impact of previous perturbations on the system. One too many benders like in college. It’s like, “Oopsie-daisy.” There is tolerance. A glass of red wine, even daily you can get away with, but it’s when you start to push things too far.
It’s fascinating for me to talk to someone about health who is a scientist because I am always talking to people who are on this other side of the spectrum or in movement or nutrition. It is always interesting to talk to scientists. David Sinclair is a friend of mine. In a way, you guys are a lot more light of spirit about health. It’s a funny thing. Everyone over here is so serious and is like, “I don’t need too many of this and too much of this.” All my scientist friends are like, “Come on, lighten up.” Plus, Sinclair is an OC, so there’s a little more light. It is an interesting thing where you’re like, “Come on, do enough of the right things and it’s probably going to be okay.”
On the whole, it’s about balance. We skew ourselves. For me, oftentimes I can get too wrapped up in work and then I don’t get enough sleep and I can feel that because sleep is important for this whole thing, too.
It might be the king, stress and sleep.
Those two oftentimes for folks are closely intertwined. You get crappy sleep when you’re stressed out.
Or you get stressed out when you haven’t slept. I always say when I talk about sleep, “Of course, unless you’ve had a baby.” I tell people, “You got two years. Deal with it. You’re walking around and you feel high half the time and out of your mind.” Sleep almost backs you away from the cliff of reaction and stress. Do you have any tricks for like, “I’ve been on this project. It’s on my mind but I’ve got to get to sleep.”
Exercise daily. For me, it’s so important to bring down the noise a little bit. I’m going to sound so unscientific.
You mean like you’re a person, a human being?
Yeah. I have a mental thing that I go through when I know that I’m having trouble sleeping. It’s funny for me, the most difficulty I have is not getting asleep, it’s staying asleep. That’s a lot more challenging. You don’t have that agency over that portion. You’re unconscious. What can I do about that? That has been frustrating over the years.
If you mentally prepare yourself before you go to sleep, there is some mitigation that you could do for waking up in the middle of the night. I would be interested if you have friends on that end of the spectrum. I’d love to talk to them because I got a lot to say on that topic. I’d love to hear the advice they have to give. I wake up so I have earplugs in and I’ve got the mask on because I can’t have any stimulation. The dog doesn’t even sleep in the bed with me because I’m so restless.
So you’re a light light sleeper?
That’s hard, then you add up what you start processing and doing everything.
I do feel like I can have some control over it, but why can’t I stay at rest?
Deep rest. Have you tried magnesium and all of those things?
No, I haven’t.
Because you don’t believe in that?
If you show me some science behind it, I’d be all about it. I would be like, “Absolutely, let’s do that.” I’m going to look over in this direction.
What about a good old-fashioned edible?
I thought about that.
Some sativa. Do you want some science on that?
There are lots some science on that and now the federal government is allowing us to do science on that. I’m much looking forward to the next couple of years about the studies that come out.
It’s legal in California.
But I want the data.
Just get your license, go over there, and look like you’re over 18.
I don’t think you even need a license anymore.
To purchase, you do. They’re tracking. Give sativa a go and see what happens.
This is amazing. It’s not good to know too much. It doesn’t help you to always to know so much. I’m like, “Magnesium works like a charm,” because I’m a terrible sleeper.
Is it the trouble falling or trouble staying asleep?
Usually trouble staying. I get up and I start thinking about business and stuff, and my kids, “Are they going to make it? Who is she in the car with?”
[bctt tweet=”On the whole, it’s about balance.”]
She’ll be fine.
Says the guy with the dog. The other fascinating thing for me is that you started a new business. Now you’re not only, “I’m going to be a scientist,” but you’re trying to be an entrepreneur. I find that fascinating. You do have a partner in this. Tell me how you arrived at that because, in a way, you and your colleagues go, “Really? A serum for the face?” Tell me about that.
I was there even when we considered it. There’s definitely stigma. I know we talked about stigma culturally in a much more important context than this.
You care what your colleagues think. They’re like, “What are you working on?” You’re like, “I’m dealing with stem cells on the heart.”
“I’m making a face serum.” We identified inflammation in the joints as being this active contributor to accelerated aging of stem cells and other cells in the joint, and likely has a big impact on osteoarthritis. We were enamored with the concept because it’s systemic. You’re having chronic inflammation that circulates around your body. Whether it emanated from your joint or not, it’s coming from a bunch of places and it’s impacting what’s happening in your joint.
If there was a way that we could mitigate that and allow the cells that can heal the joint, to tune out some of the noise, find that balance in the middle between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory, and go back to their stem cell nirvana. If we could do that, we might be able to do something that folks haven’t been able to do yet, which is to find a viable treatment. We call it a disease-modifying treatment for osteoarthritis. Can we stop the progression of the disease or maybe even reverse it? What we ended up doing was screening almost 250,000 new molecules 1 by 1.
It’s high throughput in some sense of the word. It’s like 1,600 different wells in a little tiny plastic plate and you put cells in there, and then you have a color, a fluorescent reporter for if they’re experiencing inflammation or not. Then you take hundreds of those plates so that you’re looking at the effects of all of these different new molecules and you have a scanner that looks at the plate and says, “Inflammaging, no inflammaging,” or, “Less.” It’s a colorimetric scale. Going from almost 250,000 by that method, we can get down to about 400 that look promising relatively quickly.
How long does that take?
The whole process from start to finish took ten years.
You’re trying to help people slow down their aging and you’re taking ten years? You’re like, “I was a young guy when I started this.”
I understand the irony of dedicating my life to science and aging while I’m trying.
That’s amazing, but that’s what it takes.
You were talking about failure. It’s a constant failure. Every one of these stupid molecules wasn’t doing the thing that they’re supposed to do.
No wonder you can’t stay asleep.
Eventually. We start to get glimmers of hope. That’s what we were talking about with science. It’s those little small victories that you start to follow the breadcrumbs and it’s like, “We’re definitely on to something.” You look at the structures of the molecules, and then you start to understand that this group here might be particularly important for the impact that we’re seeing. You start playing Lincoln Logs or Tetris with the molecules. You start applying one segment of one molecule to another and crafting these hybrid molecules that hopefully can continue to get better and better.
Is there an acceleration period where it’s nothing, then boom, five years brutal, and then it’s quick, two years, and then quicker, six months?
That’s the beauty of what we call iterative medicinal chemistry. You’re exactly right. You can be searching in the wilderness. Imagine those sticks that they use to look for water in the desert, that’s what we felt like, and then eventually, you get in this smaller area where the stick is getting excited, and then you’re by yourself. You then finally strike water, so we found this molecule.
When it happens the first time, are you’re like, “Let’s see if we can make it happen again.”
Do you get a little like, “I’m excited, but I’m not going to get too excited.”
Definitely. Reproducibility is so important in science. We were talking about that with clinical trials. In this case, we need to make sure that molecules that have similar structures have a similar impact because then that means that it’s not just some random fluke of this batch of producing that molecule. Some byproduct that’s in there that’s screwing everything up or giving you these false positives. It’s important that the entire family of molecules have similar but different impacts. That tells you that you’ve found something biologically relevant. That’s exactly what we were doing.
We took the one that finally looked good, and then we made 75 more analogs because we wanted to make sure we were on to something serious. Eventually, we got down to the molecule that we now call HX-1. The story of transitioning to skincare with it is funny. We’re in the progression or the saga, sometimes I like to refer to it. We were still heavily focused on osteoarthritis and in fact, we still are. Our first drug for osteoarthritis is going into clinical trials in 2022 and I’m so excited about that because ten years slog, a lot of failures, a lot of ups and downs. The clinical trial is going to be at USC. It’s going to be for folks that have mild to moderate osteoarthritis. I will talk about it a lot on whatever I’m doing.
It affects so many people.
How we transition to skincare is exactly what you would imagine it to be. Every week at UCLA, we had what we called floor meeting, which is a big conference room with a whiteboard in front and a projector, and then lots of coffee breath and glasses getting together to talk about science. One or two people will present what they’ve been working on and they will open themselves up to the intellectual pummeling by everyone else in the room. Oftentimes, it devolves into politics and science, so people will not like a certain person or concept and that motivates their line of questioning to be extra greedy.
At the same time, it’s extremely valuable because you do get constructive feedback. A lot of the time, if not most of the time, they’ve been deadass 25% of the time. After I was talking about where we were with working toward osteoarthritis, with this molecule, HX-1, a researcher down the hall came up to me and he said, “You should think about using this on the skin. Because the same mechanisms that you’re talking about have a huge impact on skin stem cells. They activate themselves through similar pathways. They need to be protected, especially because they’re getting blasted from both inside and outside from all of this extra stress. You should consider it. If you even think about things like inflammatory condition, skin conditions like rosacea or acne or eczema, let alone slow aging or anti-aging, you should consider that.”
We laughed it off because of how we got into this. I’m like, “I can’t wait to get there. I’ve never washed my face in my life at this point.” That’s absolutely true, by the way. Eventually, we did come around to the idea that this could be a way of getting this amazing technology that we put so much effort into people’s hands or onto their faces, ironically enough. Sharing the work that we’ve done with people and helping them experience something a little bit differently.
It’s so noticeable and we internalize a lot of that. I didn’t quite understand that before we launched Heraux and I got into the beauty industry. It occurred to me, but I never experienced how painful that could be for people and how difficult sometimes it is on the emotional side to maybe not love the way that you look. After talking with a ton of people, I have a much greater appreciation for that now. I’m super happy that we did this.
The market is like, “There’s a slow aging component.” Rosacea, people were having less redness and acne because acne is an inflammation. Sometimes it is hormonal, especially in younger people. You were talking about stem cells in the basal layer as well. I want to say right up the top, there is a lot of information in this product. The product is expensive. People that are reading this, you’re clearly qualified but I always like to be forthcoming with people. Now you’ve diversified into this other world. You are an entrepreneur. That’s harder in a different way than science. You have a partner. How’s that going?
It’s like any other partnership. There’s going to be give and take. Learning how the things that you’re good at and the things that the other person is good at. Being able to complement one another in terms of your skillsets and also compliment one another. Because people need to hear that sometimes from someone that they respect and maybe they’ve gone a few rounds with in terms of wondering about directionality. The most important thing is being able to recognize as a functional unit, the two of you, we need to go outside of this partnership and seek people that have expertise that we don’t. You’re scientists or doctors and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing when it comes to starting a skincare business.
Packaging, marketing, and all these things.
It took me a while to figure out that how people look mattered to them. I’m embellishing that.
You have a lot on your mind.
Once I heard it, it was like, “Of course, this makes a ton of sense. I understand it much better now than I did before.” Making things look pretty, look at what I’m wearing, I have no idea. I don’t care. That’s not where my brain is and I’m okay with that. You’re right, you need to find people that can because it’s important when you’re going out there. You’re asking people to believe you and what you’ve put in the bottle, the ten years of research that is inside of this little glass bottle, that it’s going to make an impact for them. It needs to look the part.
By the way, I got the product and I use it every day because I like to use things when I talk about them. I’ve had a few skincare lines so I know that there’s something in there. This isn’t full of fragrances and fluffiness. This has a purpose-driven feel to it and smell to it. Just a superficial question, I did see that people could use it but if their skin was drier than usual, they could even put a moisturizer on top of that?
[bctt tweet=”It’s those little small victories that you start to follow the breadcrumbs.”]
Definitely. We’ve got a ton of feedback on all ends of the spectrum. For me, for example, this is all that I feel my skin wants, but there are other people that are like, “I’m a little drier and the serum isn’t quite as moisturizing as I want it to be. Can I put on a heavier moisturizer? If so, what’s the order?” Definitely, this would go on first and then a heavier moisturizer on top, no problem.
It has to be. Please use sunblock.
Do you go out in the sun?
No, I spend most of my time inside. I’ll admit that.
You’re going to look young forever.
Because of the sun’s damaging component. Even the stupid fluorescent lights have an active component of UV there that is not negligible.
People are seeing after a few weeks, especially on the rosacea, what’s the timeline that they’re saying like, “I’m seeing something.”
There’s a clinical study that we did because we’re scientists and we’re not going to just be like, “We’re making skincare now,” without anything else.
You just then send it to your sister and Brenda.
No, not my sister and Brenda.
Brenda must be tripping out. It must be like my son.
She’ll never read this. No offense to you.
They are in skincare.
She wants me to be happy and to do something that I love. For her, those are the two big things. I definitely found that. It’s been a crazy ride the last couple of years putting this together and then getting out there and marketing it. We did a clinical study of just the molecule alone in an inert base because we wanted to know what the molecule HX-1 could do on the skin by itself. I didn’t feel comfortable formulating something that I could point to results and say, “Yeah, I believe in this. I can believe in it because I’m a scientist and this is how my brain works.”
We had a study with 30 participants. They used this HX-1 only in an inert base morning and night after cleansing their face, and then how we evaluated it was also a little different. I came to understand the industry. We hired a board-certified dermatologist to evaluate these participants at the start of the process 4 weeks in and then 8 weeks later, but we didn’t stop there because that’s not enough. I need something objective.
A board-certified dermatologist is going to be as objective as possible, but there could be some subjectivity there. I want something that is unequivocally scientific. We did two sets of imaging as well. One type of imaging is called Vizio. People that know something about skincare, these are the high-definition images before and after of the face. Then we also took it a notch further, we did Antero imaging. This is essentially topographical mapping of the face imaging-wise. They’re insanely high-definition images of the face. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt.
I don’t want to know that much about my skin that close. When they go, “Do you want to see what your skin is going to be in 25 years, the dark spots?” I go, “No, thank you.”
[bctt tweet=”It’s those little small victories that you start to follow the breadcrumbs.”
I get that. What it allows us to do is the computerized topography of the face. You can have the computer spit out data for fine lines, wrinkles, density of pigmentation, etc. You get completely objective measurements of what is happening from week 0 to week 8. The entire results were amazing. We saw some wrinkle reductions up to 85%. You’d imagine 85% of the Grand Canyon being filled in.
One of the coolest things about that ten years of work identifying the molecule and figuring out what it does is that we figured out what it does. A lot of things, we don’t know how they work. We hand wave, hypotheses. A lot of times we don’t know, but we figured out exactly what HX-1 does. This is going to get fun. How dorky are you?
I want to go dorky.
Have you ever seen Lord of the Rings or read the books?
I feel like that’s dorky.
Not at all.
In Lord of the Rings, there’s this one ring that rules them all. What we figured out is that there’s a protein on stem cells that controls the balance between regeneration on one side of the spectrum and inflammation and aging on the other. If it gets activated in one way, it can promote a mild, normal regenerative response. If it’s activated chronically and the environment around the stem cells is crappy, it gets activated in this negative way. This will unequivocally accelerate the aging process in stem cells and be responsible for inflammation. It’s just one protein to rule them all.
What we found is a molecule that interacts with that protein in such a way that it not only shields it from the chronic factors that would cause the pro-inflammaging response in the stem cells and get them this feed-forward loop. Where if a stem cell is in a bad environment, it tells all the other stem cells around it, “I’m in a bad environment,” and they experience it as well. It’s a team effort here.
It protects them from these pro-inflammaging factors and shifts the protein into a pro-regenerative response. Then the stem cell starts telling all the other stem cells and daughter cells are at it. “Let’s make more protein. Let’s behave like we’re young,” which more protein in this case is collagen and elastin, which is why we can see wrinkles losing their depth up to 85% because you’re getting more cells that are being produced from those previously tired stem cells. Those daughter cells are functioning at a higher level, so that whole wrinkle then has no need to exist because the stem cells that are responsible for repairing it are activated properly.
Someone who is a little more mature, it can repair a bit?
There’s preventative. Did I read something about skin circadian rhythm?
Yeah, believe it or not. We’ve established here, I’m a creature of habit and it helps me function at my optimal level. Stem cells are exactly the same. Circadian rhythm is a part of making sure that when stem cells are doing housekeeping tasks, let’s say listening to that conversation that is going on in the body, they’re doing it at regular defined intervals so that they are in a rhythm. They are doing something normally. There’s no perturbation or as minimal perturbation as possible.
Stem cells do listen to our body’s circadian rhythm. If they can’t listen anymore, then they start to get all pissed off and they start secreting inflammatory factors. It’s fascinating that the circadian system is total body, not just brain. Like sunscreen, everyone will be using an anti-inflammaging product in their skincare routines because it’s that important. Your skin outside and inside is getting chronically insulted, so it’s important to provide some supplement to that. I feel like it’s useful for the skin above all else to be able to do that.
I appreciate that you have a sense of adventure. For you to be in skincare is adventurous of you. Are you going to make other products in Heraux?
I’ve been in the sun, beach volleyball, I grew up in the Caribbean and all that. However, my father is from Trinidad and my grandfather was light, but he was black and my grandmother was white, so I have some genetic support there. I’m going to ask you something, which is I do believe that the regiment of my food and my exercise, and maybe this is the 25% belief part, but I have taken supplements since I was in my early 20s. It’s made me believe that it’s supported my skin.
Whatever works is what it comes down to for me. I’m such a pragmatist. That’s why when we were talking about that placebo effect, initially I was like, “You got to be kidding me.” Now I realize, “We’re all in this together.” More of us need to think that way and we need to also apply it to not everything that works for one person is going to work for someone else.
In the medical field, we have this whole thing called personalized medicine, where the affliction that someone is experiencing is not the same, even though the diagnosis may be the same for somebody else. We need to have a personalized approach to whatever it is that will help them feel that. There are skincare companies I’ve seen a smattering of things where they create a product specifically for you. That’s interesting. It’s more of a marketing thing.
I can’t wait to go to those beauty conventions. It’ll be amazing. I would love to hang out with you. Ladies with their hands and all the things.
Let’s plan a trip. It’ll be entertaining for both of us.
[bctt tweet=”If it’s not worth working hard for, it’s not worth doing.”]
I have one question which is, in your dream of dreams to study something in a lab, you have Heraux and you’re going to be continuing I would imagine in the inflammaging area. What is something though that intrigues you or entices you as a scientist that you would like to put your teeth into because it’s something that interests you?
What keeps me up at night in terms of when I wake up from sleeping lightly and the dog is moving in her crate because she’s like, “Why are you awake?” What I think about honestly, Gabby, is inflammaging. I don’t think it stops at slow aging. Regeneration is possible. We as mammals are crappy at regenerating but if you look at other organisms that are lower in the phylogeny, there are lizards that can regrow their entire tail. There are salamanders that can regrow entirely perfect limbs.
That balance between aging and regeneration can be shifted further. There’s a possibility that within our lifetimes, we will be able to achieve functional regeneration, organisms like humans. That’s the puzzle that if I can make some small contribution to understanding the bigger picture, that’s what I want to do. I feel like we’re already on the path and then it’s going to be continuing to do meticulous, methodical, decades-long, full of failure research. We’ll get there.
I was nervous about this interview because I know quite a few scientists. I was like, “I want to ask Ben about Ben.” There’s Dr. Van Handel but then there’s you, the human being. I want to say that first of all, I’ve learned quite a lot. Second of all, I appreciate your humanity within being so logical and scientific because that’s unusual. Maybe that’s a gift that you’ll use in a different way later that you don’t even know yet. Maybe you could also direct people. Where can they buy Heraux?
The website is HerauxSkin.com. You can go there and you can learn about it.
Is there anywhere else?
It’s also sold by REVOLVE. It’s one of our retail partners, so it was a great partnership to be able to access a younger audience thinking preventative like we were talking about.
Because they’re crazy. Do you see what they’re doing to their skin now?
Yup. They could use a little support. Their stem cells are crying out for it.
But they’ll do anything. I have three daughters and they are so on top of their skin game.
That’s so cool that the younger folks are starting to ask serious questions. That’s why it’s the right time for science to step. All of you people out there, step seriously into the skincare industry.
It’s portrayed anyways from a laboratory so it might as well be from one.
A couple of brick and mortars. These are great stores. They have stores in Dallas, Napa, and New York City. We’re in this wonderful little store called Beauty Mark in Jackson Hole. If you ever go to Wyoming, you can get it there. That might be all of our current retail partners. I’m thinking of something that’s coming.
The future is online anyway. This is where people shop. That’s where you get your margins. That’s where you keep your cost down.
I feel like online, you can have a conversation with people.
This has an educational piece.
We definitely found that out. It requires that. We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to start doing things like this, which has been great. We’re doing what’s called TalkShopLive, where it’s just me and somebody else anywhere from 35 to an hour-long, where we talk about this. There’s a live chat where people can ask questions. I love these kinds of formats because it’s so important for people. If they’re going to have a product, I want you to ask questions about it. I want you to be confident in the science behind it.
You should talk to Lauryn Bosstick. She has a podcast with her husband called The Skinny Confidential and she’s all about it. You two would be a house on fire. I appreciate your time. It reminds me that nothing comes easy. Everything takes time and to do it right takes time. There’s no way around it.
When we were growing up, we had many Gary-isms. We made t-shirts. One of the things my dad always said is, “If it’s not worth working hard for, it’s not worth doing.” That’s like a wives’ tale, but my parents were great. Thank you so much for having me and letting me off the leash a little bit. That’s fun.
No one will ever do that for you again, don’t worry, I’ll be the only one. That’s why you need to talk to Lauryn because you’ll have fun with her. Thank you.
Thanks so much for being here. If you’d like, rate, subscribe, and leave us a review. All of my music was graciously done by Frank Zummo and Tom Thacker. If you want to see some of the behind-the-scenes action, follow me, @GabbyReece. Remember, don’t miss new episodes every Monday.
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About Dr. Ben Van Handel
Dr. Ben Van Handel is a highly-awarded stem cell scientist and entrepreneur. He earned his B.S. Degree in Biochemistry from Northern Michigan University and his Ph.D. in molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCLA. He started his first company during graduate school and has gone on to found two others, serving as the CEO of all three and raising millions of dollars in capital and successfully bringing highly innovative products to the market. He has published over 30 papers in the fields of regenerative medicine and stem cell biology that have been cited over 2,500 times. Dr. Van Handel enjoys staying active, roasting coffee, and spending time with his beagle Yeti.