In her late 30s, Leslie Kenny was diagnosed with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and hypothyroidism. Kenny decided to work on healing herself through what the modern medical system would call "alternative," but what would ultimately reverse her conditions and change her life.
After heading back to school at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NYC (and keep in mind, this is after Kenny graduated from Berkley and Harvard Business School), the California-based entrepreneur would go on to start Oxford Healthspan, a nutraceutical company that focuses on healthy aging, after she worked closely with the scientists at the University of Oxford.
Healthnews interviewed the CEO, health coach, and biohacker on spermidine, studying under Dave Asprey, redefining what it means to "get better with age," and loving the body you're in.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your background? You studied under Dave Asprey — can you chat about becoming a Bulletproof Coach?
A: I first came across Dave Asprey and his own personal journey to hacking his health in 2016 when my mom and I heard him speak at Rob Wolf’s conference in Anaheim. His story on overcoming obesity echoed my own experience reversing my lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and infertility. Dave had a fire in his belly, which was inspiring and so when he started the Bulletproof Institute, the forerunner to the Human Performance Institute led by Dr. Rod Atkinson, I jumped at the chance to join the first European class in London. I have so many friends from that initial cohort of Bulletproof coaches. All of us believe in the body’s ability to heal itself and despair at the sick care system that prevails today. Happily, movements like Dave’s have started a grassroots movement to change this.
Q: What led you to start Oxford Healthspan?
A: I had been helping other Oxford University regenerative medicine startups connect with investors when the biotech portfolio manager at Oxford Science Enterprises introduced me to Immunology Prof. Katja Simon and Dr. Ghada Alsaleh, who were working on an awkwardly named molecule, spermidine, to restore immune function to elderly CD8 T cells. These are the cells that can, for instance, correctly identify cancer cells and kill them. But as we get older, it’s almost as if our T cells develop amnesia. The body sends them out to surveil for cancer, and they can no longer recognize it. The same holds true for viruses, pathogens, fungi, and even our own tissue. This immune dysfunction and inability to correctly identify self-tissue from non-self tissue was exactly what had gone wrong with me almost 20 years ago when my doctor told me my body looked like it was fighting cancer — only it was destroying my own tissues and organs. Katja and Ghada told me how spermidine is ubiquitous. Our tissues and gut biome produce it, and all plants produce it too, which is primarily how we get it from food. In other words, it was such a common molecule and had been sitting in front of scientists for decades without revealing its immune supportive powers or its additional super-power: to activate the cellular self-cleaning and recycling process known as autophagy. Autophagy is so important that the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded to Prof. Yoshimori Ohsumi in 2016 for his identification of 18 genes involved in the autophagic mechanism.
You can imagine how excited I was. Here was something in our diet that held the promise to renew all our cells. But no one was talking about it. When I asked why, my colleague at OSE told me it was because there was no chance you could patent a molecule in food to help with human health, so pharmaceutical companies had no incentive to promote it. Only synthetic versions could be patented — they were not the same thing, but close enough, and at least a company could protect any investment they made into research and marketing.
This angered and frustrated me no end as a patient. Having studied business, I know that there are plenty of successful products without patents attached to them — Coke and Pepsi, for instance. But this was a product with the potential to renew cells and slow the aging process. When we slow the rate at which we age, we prolong our healthspan and avoid the diseases of aging that plague older Americans today: cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer [are] among them. They say that people are prompted to act when the frustration of not acting is greater than the energy needed to act. I had essentially done all the research to launch a company using bootstrapped funds by early 2020, but then we went into lockdown, and I asked Katja whether or not I should launch in the middle of the pandemic. "We need this product more than ever, Leslie," was what she said to me, so by October 2020, we officially launched Oxford Healthspan and our flagship product Primeadine® spermidine supplements.
Q: How does spermidine slow the expression of the hallmarks of aging?
A: Scientists agree that there are 12 unique root causes of aging, and they range from things most of us have heard about, such as stem cell and mitochondrial dysfunction, to inflammation and gut dysbiosis. But there are other important hallmarks, and one that has a major impact on many of the others is impaired autophagy. Because there is also a lot of "cross-talk" between the hallmarks, inhibiting just one of them, let’s say, inflammation, can have an impact on others, such as mitochondrial function. Essentially, the lower the burden in one hallmark, the lower the overall burden to the body. But spermidine has been studied by scientists and shown to inhibit at least nine of the 12 hallmarks. That’s like having a home with 12 messy rooms and sending in nine housekeepers to clean up nine of those rooms. Would you be better able to clean up the remaining 3 rooms if you had that kind of support with the other nine? Definitely, but starting at cleaning up and improving the function of the cell, the building block of everything else in the body, is fundamental.
Q: Tell me a bit about the Smart Ageing Summit that occurred this summer! Will this be a reoccurring event?
A: During COVID, Sir Christopher Ball, Prof. Denis Noble, and Dr. Paul Ch’en, and I began to meet up over Zoom. We were frustrated with [the] lockdown and the predicament that the UK and the world had gotten into. Comorbidities were the biggest predictors of mortality, and each of us keenly felt the need to do what we personally could to improve our own health, but we knew about things, such as autophagy, that most people, including medical doctors, had never heard of, so we resolved to bring cutting edge scientists together with medical clinicians to talk about how to incorporate these ideas into patient protocols. The webinars were free, and the public was invited to participate. The world’s leading researcher on autophagy in mammals, Prof. Tomatsu Yoshimori, who did all the studies for the Nobel Laureate, presented at our first webinar. By 2023, most people were "Zoomed" out and were craving human interaction at live events, so we launched our first Smart Ageing Summit at Sir Christopher’s old college, Keble College, Oxford University. Prof. Kieran Clarke, who invented exogenous ketones with money from DARPA, presented, as did Dr. Michael Stein, an Oxford-trained immunologist who shed light on the pitfalls of Ozempic and the other GLP-1 inhibitors. Celebrity medics, Dr. Tamsin Lewis and Dr. Olivia Lesslar also spoke, among others.
It was such a success that we will be doing it again next year, on Saturday, 29th June 2024, but this time at St. Hilda’s College, known as the Suffragettes’ College at Oxford. That seems fitting as we are trying to empower patients to take control of their own health just as the suffragettes did with women and the vote. You can save the date by joining our mailing list over on oxfordlongevityproject.org.
This year Dr. Ghada Alsaleh, who runs the UK’s first and only Space Innovation Centre at the Botnar Musculoskeletal Research Centre at Oxford, will be speaking. It’s well known that we age rapidly in space (so much for space tourism if you want to stay young!), so Ghada’s lab is sending tissue into space to see how it ages and what we can do to slow or stay that process in space in the hope that we can use those interventions on earth.
American celebrity longevity doctor, Dr. Sandra Kaufmann, creator of the Kaufmann Protocol of 7 pathways of aging and author of two books on molecules that can inhibit aging, will also be speaking about how to slow biological aging.
Q: Can you share any information you'd like to talk about for folks seeking longevity?
A: There is a difference between longevity and healthspan. Our current medical system supports longevity but not healthspan. I took a year out of college to nurse my grandmother back in Indiana when she became comatose while fighting a brain tumor. It was the saddest time and yet the greatest privilege to serve her, but I’m sure it was never her wish to spend her last year of life with me, turning her every 2 hours, feeding her Ensure ["chocolate" flavored] through a nasal tube, and emptying her catheter bag. She could not move or speak and only very rarely ever opened her eyes, but I knew she was there. In the end, she didn’t die of a brain tumor but from a bleed to the stomach, which was the side effect of a drug she was taking to combat the negative side effects of the chemo drugs. Statistically, she had an extra year of longevity because of the drugs, but at what cost?
That experience was galvanizing and informs my belief in healthspan over lifespan — optimizing our health for as long as possible so that we can live with energy, vitality, and connection to the world around us. And we have more power than we know to positively impact this since lifestyle habits have a greater impact on our health than almost anything else. Exercise is so impactful that it would be the most impactful drug we could ever hope to take. Sleep, clean food, stress management, social connection, and [a] sense of purpose are all free to us.
Q: What advice can you give to people with an autoimmune disease who are looking for relief and answers?
A: I want every autoimmune patient to know that they are a miracle and their bodies have not let them down — their bodies are simply on a misguided mission to try and protect them. We therefore need to support their bodies and guide them back to homeostasis or balance so that their immune systems can properly identify self-tissue from non-self. In my own case, I was lucky enough not to listen to the prevailing wisdom at the time, which was to suppress the immune system.
Being the granddaughter of two doctors who studied medicine at Kyoto University, my belief was always that the body has an innate wisdom so long as it is in balance. When it is out of balance, things go wrong, and we age. The idea of suppressing the immune system as opposed to rebalancing it made no sense to me. I, therefore, began doing research on ways to restore balance — by going on Dr. Barry Sears’ Zone Anti-Inflammatory Diet and removing the dietary triggers to my immune system while adding in anti-inflammatories such as Omega-3’s and olive oil. I also discovered Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIg). This was shown to put other RA patients into remission in small, early clinical trials. It was an expensive treatment at $12,000 per four-hour transfusion, and I did this twice. But I have since calculated that my Humira and Enbrel injections would have cost me $5,000 USD per month which would have been over a whopping $1m last time I looked. And that doesn’t take into account the heartache of likely not being able to conceive a biological child and living with the debilitating and constant joint pain I experienced early in my diagnosis.
My bottom line advice to other AI patients is: you are a miracle, and your body is capable of so much more than you could ever dream. Support and love your body with the things that make it stronger and bring it into balance, and it will reward you with overall health and vitality. And, yes, it is possible to reverse diseases like lupus that currently have no cure — the cures exist, we just don’t commonly know about them, but I’m living n of 1 proof that it, and RA, can be reversed.