The reason this matters is that SRT501 had been one of the most closely watched molecules in the Big Pharma pipeline ever since 2008, when GlaxoSmithKline snapped it up in a $720 million acquisition of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals — the company that first suggested resveratrol might be useful for treating age-related diseases.
Posts Tagged ‘GlaxoSmithKline’
I just got wind of a controversy that erupted a few weeks back over two executives of GlaxoSmithKline who had formerly been with Sirtris, the company that discovered resveratrol’s supposed life-extending powers. Resveratrol, the red-wine supplement that has been all the rage, is being studied in pharmaceutical-grade form to treat a variety of age-related diseases, but so far has been unimpressive.
Nevertheless, Christoph Westphal and Michelle Dipp of Glaxo/Sirtris were marketing resveratrol supplements through their Boston non-profit, Healthy Lifespan Institute, the Web site Xconomy revealed. Soon after, Glaxo ordered them to stop selling the supplement and resign their positions on the board of Healthy Lifespan.
The institute had been offering resveratrol for an eye-popping $590 a year. Even though they didn’t intend to profit off the supplement, they clearly recognized an opportunity to jump on a lucrative bandwagon. But here’s my question: What’s the appeal of a supplement that has yet to show any proven anti-aging powers?
According to a paper published in the journal Cell, leading aging researcher Leonard Guarente has shown that activating a protein called SIRT1 appears to treat Alzheimer’s in mice. Guarente is on the scientific advisory board of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, a company that has been studying SIRT1 and other proteins known as sirtuins, which its scientists believe are important in the aging process. Sirtris was bought by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million in 2008.
Guarente’s research showed that increasing the level of SIRT1 in the brains of mice lowered the production of beta-amyloid plaques–fragments that build up in the brain and are believed to cause memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Not surprisingly, the finding garnered some skepticism. Dr. Howard Fillit, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, pointed out to the Boston Globe that Alzheimer’s has been cured over 150 times in mice–but never in people. Even the scientists engaged in sirtuin research caution that their findings might not translate into therapies for humans.
Nevertheless, this sort of news will likely boost demand for resveratrol, the red wine supplement that many natural-health enthusiasts believe can extend life. Enthusiasm for resveratrol was sparked by Sirtris co-founder and Harvard scientist David Sinclair, who first proposed the idea that the natural compound might activate sirtuins and extend life.
Since then, Sirtris and Glaxo have moved on to study much more potent sirtuin activators. And Sinclair has pointed out many times that you’d have to drink an awful lot of red wine–or gobble down many bottles of resveratrol supplements–to get any benefit.
That hasn’t stopped the supplement industry from capitalizing on resveratrol fever, though. According to Nutrition Business Journal, media hype generated $30 million in resveratrol sales in 2008, and many supplement sellers are forecasting 100% increases in demand each year. This despite the fact that resveratrol has never been shown to have any therapeutic effect in humans.
And now we have this Alzheimer’s development. Can you hear the cash registers ringing at your local health food store?
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.