June 2010 - Selling the Fountain of Youth Selling the Fountain of Youth

Archive for June, 2010

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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Posted in Resveratrol, Science of Aging


Exercise: The Only Anti-Aging Routine that Works

21 Jun

I came across a recent column in the Baltimore Sun penned by five-time Olympic speed-skating legend Eric Heiden. In “Exercise: The Anti-Aging Shield,” Heiden–now an orthopedic surgeon–writes about how exercise affects telomeres, which are tiny pieces of DNA that protect chromosomes. Scientists have long suspected that short telomeres are associated with heart disease, diabetes, and early death.

According to recent research at the University of California in San Francisco, exercise lowers stress, which in turn preserves telomere length. (Telomeres are the red bits in the photo on the right.) In essence, exercise prevents cells from aging due to stress.  And you don’t need to put in an Olympian effort: Vigorous physical activity for a total of 42 minutes over a three-day period is plenty, the researchers say. You have to keep it up, week in and week out, over a lifetime. Still, says Heiden, this is the first study to show definitively that exercise is linked to longer telomeres.

As is the case with anything related to anti-aging, though, at least one company is trying to give people an easy way out. When I was researching my book, I met Noel Patton, founder of TA Sciences, a New York company that sells an herbal supplement called TA-65. Patton believes TA-65 lengthens telomeres, and when I met him, he was busy recruiting people to try it as part of his “Patton Protocol”–which costs $25,000 a year. This despite the fact that he has little scientific proof that the supplement, derived from the Chinese herb astragalus, affects telomere length at all.

Exercise, on the other hand, has been proven time and again to have remarkable anti-aging properties. A study by the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas found that death rates plummeted among people who started taking half-hour walks a few times a week. Men who became fit decreased their risk of dying of any disease by a staggering 44%.

Yet exercise is still among the hardest chores to get Americans to do. A 2009 Gallup survey found that only one in four Americans were willing to get off their butts and exercise for a scant half-hour, five or more days a week.

It’s not as if moderate exercise is that difficult. Gardening counts, as does taking the stairs instead of the elevator. If the UCSF research proves true, all of that will help lengthen your telomeres and possibly extend your life. I got a dog and started walking between 40 minutes and an hour a day, mixing high-speed and low-speed walking. I lost 10 pounds without really intending to, and my HDL (the “good” cholesterol) went up. My primary care doctor recently told me I don’t really need to worry about doing other sorts of exercise–the dog is plenty.

One thing is certain: My dog costs me a lot less than $25,000 a year, and she’s much cuter than a bottle of TA-65.

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Posted in Lifestyle


Kurzweil and Kin Preach “Singularity”

14 Jun

I read with great interest the recent New York Times story “Merely Human? So Yesterday.” The reporter attended a nine-day course in California called Singularity University, taught by a coterie of executives and scientists who believe in the Singularity, or as the reporter puts it, a time “when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.” Believers in this movement have their own Fountain of Youth: They expect that humans can live for hundreds of years, using a hodgepodge of life-extending medicines and technologies, some of which have yet to be invented.

When I was researching my book, I interviewed the chief prosthelytizer of the Singularity, Ray Kurzweil. He’s somewhat of a hero in the anti-aging movement, not only because he believes humans can live forever, but because he embraces some amount of hormone replacement. He doesn’t endorse all the remedies anti-aging types embrace–he loathes human growth hormone, for example–but he does believe some supplements are useful for extending life. He’s a fan of the healthy fats and vitamin D, and he tests his hormone levels every three months to decide if he needs to supplement, say, with testosterone.

“People say ‘do you really think taking Vitamin D is going to help you live 100 years?'” Kurzweil told me last year. “The answer is no. The goal is to live healthfully for another 15 years or so to get through this future point where we will have this maturing of the biotechnology revolution.”

What he was referring to is the idea that people should take supplements and hormones as a “bridge” to a time when technological advances such as biotech and nanotechnology will help us extend our lifespans for real. Kurzweil is a low-key guy, but he got pretty excited talking about research into nano-devices that can travel through the body detecting cancer cells and killing them, or pea-sized gizmos that can be implanted in the brain to treat Parkinson’s Disease. All of that is early research–it’s decades away from reality–which is why Kurzweil is big on the idea of using whatever tools are out there now to extend life.

Kurzweil was 61 when he met, but he claimed his biological age was 40. He walks and works out nearly every day. And he’s constantly tweaking his supplement regimen, which includes one I had never heard of before: phosphatidylcholine. “Ninety percent of the cell membrane in a child is phosphatidylcholine,” he said. “It’s a very useful substance. It gives the cell membrane suppleness, and it also helps everything to work well, to take in nutrients and let out the toxins.” But like most supplements, it’s very lightly regulated by the FDA, which means no one is testing it for either safety or effectiveness. Naturally, then, I’m a skeptic.

Kurzweil, a lifelong inventor, wrote the book The Singularity is Near, which suggests that humans will someday use technology to trump biology, allowing them to live forever. For now, though, Kurzweil is traversing the only bridge he can find to eternal life–one that’s built on supplements and exercise.

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Posted in Lifestyle