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Will There Ever Be a Youth Pill?

24 Jun

An article in the July/August issue of Technology Review recounts the travails of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a company founded on the premise that resveratrol–a substance in red wine–might extend life. Resveratrol seemed in early research to activate an enzyme known as a sirtuin, which in turn mimicked the life-extending impact of calorie restriction. The writer, Karen Weintraub (no relation), reveals some recent events that have taken the shine off Sirtris’ approach, raising doubts that a so-called “youth pill” is anywhere on the horizon. The story is pegged to the release of the book The Youth Pill, by former Fortune writer David Stipp.

I also write about Sirtris in Selling the Fountain of Youth, but with a decidedly skeptical take. Long before Sirtris had any compelling scientific proof its approach worked, entrepreneurs started selling resveratrol supplements and claiming that one of Sirtris’ co-founders, Harvard scientist David Sinclair, was actually endorsing them (he wasn’t). Still, Sinclair became a media darling, appearing as an anti-aging expert on 60 Minutes, and sharing a bottle of red wine with a coy Barbara Walters on a TV special called “Live to be 150…Can You Do It?”

Sinclair knows full well the science will take a long time to come to fruition, and he has said many times–including in interviews I did for this story in BusinessWeek–that it will take something much more potent than resveratrol to produce an anti-aging effect.

Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline purchased Sirtris for an eye-popping $720 million in 2008. Together the companies are studying compounds that stimulate sirtuins. But as the Technology Review story points out, last month Glaxo stopped recruiting patients for a trial of one of Sirtris’ resveratrol compounds, which is being studied to treat multiple myeloma. The company said it needs time to figure out why some patients are developing a dangerous kidney ailment. And Pfizer published a study earlier this year questioning whether one of Sirtris’ other compounds even targets sirtuins effectively.

If the sirtuin approach or others someday prove to be effective, the companies developing these drugs will still have a basic problem: The FDA doesn’t recognize aging as a disease. So instead the companies will have to test their drugs in diseases that are common in aging people, such as cancer and diabetes. And judging from recent news, even that is likely to be a challenge.

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t count on a pill–or a hormone injection, supplement or any other tonic–to extend your life. Age happens. There’s no shortcut to preventing it.

 
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