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Times of London Features Selling the Fountain of Youth

16 Dec

In a December 16 story, The Times of London is featuring my book as a way to spotlight what they call “elixirs of youth: the top five myths.” The online version of the Times is a subscription-only site, so I will list the myths here:

1. Human Growth Hormone: “…its benefits have not been proved, and there have been no long-term studies of its side-effects in healthy users.”

2. Acai berry: “This is the best example of an anti-aging elixir gone completely out out control.”

3. Resveratrol: “…doses in the animal studies were far higher than people could tolerate–the equivalent of drinking 750 to 1,500 bottles of red wine.”

4. Antioxidants: “…the jury is out over whether this is any benefit from applying them to the skin….”

5. Alpha hydroxy acids: “Don’t expect over-the-counter products to make any difference.”

Interestingly, the hook for this story is a study out this week on lenalidomide from the Universith of California at San Francisco. A scientist there discovered that taking small amounts of this pill, which is related to thalidomide, boosts immunity. The Times calls this “an elixir of youth.” The UCSF scientists don’t go quite so far. More to come on this topic….

For those with a subscription, here’s a link to the Times of London story on Selling the Fountain of Youth.

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HuffPo: Drug Trial Raises Doubts About Resveratrol’s Anti-Aging Powers

08 Dec

On December 2, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline quietly halted a clinical trial of SRT501, a concentrated form of resveratrol, which is the much-hyped substance found in red wine grapes.

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.

Read more here.

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Health Magazine: Are Natural Cures Bad For You?

26 Nov

Health Magazine has embarked on a series of stories about the dangers of herbal supplements. I found the first story in this series to be both eye-opening and disturbing.

The story starts with an anecdote about a woman who developed ventricular tachycardia–an irregular heartbeat–after taking an over-the-counter diet supplement. She assumed because the product was made of herbs, it must be safe.

Millions of people take herbal supplements–often in enormous doses–because they think they’re natural and safer than pharmaceutical products. Fact is, the laws in our country provide little oversight over the makers of herbal supplements, and these remedies can be just as potent as what the pharmaceutical companies make.

According to a poll by, 83% of people take some sort of supplement sometimes. And 56% of respondents said they believe supplements are safer than prescription and OTC drugs.

I’m not surprised. Some people who find out about Selling the Fountain of Youth tell me that they’re taking super-potent doses of resveratrol–the red wine supplement that was shown in Harvard studies to extend the lives of mice by about 30%. (The same incredible results have not been shown in humans as of yet.)

Yes, you can buy resveratrol over the counter at your local health food store and many other places. And because it’s a non-prescription product, you can take it in super-potent doses if you choose.

But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. As reported here in June, GlaxoSmithKline ended a trial of a resveratrol product because some patients in the trial developed kidney problems. So it worries me when people tell me they’re taking massive doses of the resveratrol they can buy at their local store.

Since late 2007, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has received 2,000 reports of adverse side effects from nutritional supplements, according to the Health story. The report goes on to describe several examples of dietary supplements that contained trace amounts of prescription drugs, some of which could be dangerous.

As of earlier this year, supplement makers must comply with good-manufacturing practices set out by the FDA. The agency could take enforcement actions against those who don’t comply.

In the meantime here’s some advice for anyone who is taking nutritional supplements:

1. Check the bottles of your supplements to make sure they include a seal from US Pharmacopeia (USP). That at least will ensure the supplement contains the ingredients it says it does.

2. Google the name of the supplement and the manufacturer to make sure there are no safety reports on file.

3. Get your doctor’s opinion on any supplement you plan to take.

4. And finally, don’t take enormous doses of anything. Remember, you are self-medicating. And even if you think what you’re taking is perfectly “natural,” that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free.

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Posted in Lifestyle


Free Trials of Anti-Aging Products: Buyer Beware

02 Oct


In Selling the Fountain of Youth, I write about the plethora of Internet offers for “free trials” of supplements that purportedly extend life, such as acai berry and resveratrol. Earlier this year, the Web was over-run with ads featuring Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Oz, as if to imply these celebrities had actually endorsed specific acai and resveratrol products for anti-aging (they hadn’t). Winfrey and Oz sued 50 Internet supplement sellers, and most of those ads came off the Web.

However, as I discovered recently while reporting a story for the US News & World Report retirement issue, many seniors are still falling for free-trial offers that aren’t exactly free. The problem is so pervasive that the Federal Trade Commission is now getting involved. Read more here.

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Posted in Resveratrol


Resveratrol Pioneers in Hot Water

29 Aug

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?

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Scientists Make Headway Against Alzheimer’s–In Mice

31 Jul

Leonard Guarente

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?

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Posted in Science of Aging


To Age or Not to Age? New Documentary Argues Latter

17 Jul

Bangor University

Last night I ventured to Greenwich Village for a screening of the new documentary To Age or Not To Age? It was followed by a Q&A with its director, Robert Kane Pappas. The film features some of the most famous scientists in the field of aging, including Leonard Guarante and Cynthia Kenyon, who have both made groundbreaking discoveries about the genes involved in the aging process. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals co-founder David Sinclair, who I write about in Selling the Fountain of Youth, also figures prominently in this film. He’s the Harvard professor who’s studying the potential life-extending powers of the red-wine extract known as resveratrol.

Though the movie amounts to little more than talking scientists–mixed in with a few aging people musing about immortality–it’s quite clear to me what Pappas’ answer to the question posed in his title is. He seems to fully support the notion that anti-aging research might result in a pill we could all take someday to avoid aging. The scientists who appear in the film are built up as heroes, complete with dramatic music to accompany their interviews. All of them spout plenty of caveats about how difficult it will be to translate their discoveries into therapies. Nevertheless, when Pappas introduced himself to the 25 or so viewers who showed up for the screening, he began by declaring anti-aging research to be “very very hopeful.”

Audience members bombarded Pappas with questions about resveratrol in particular. The extract is widely available as a nutritional supplement, though Sirtris is studying far more potent versions of it. And the company and its corporate partner, GlaxoSmithKline, aren’t pursuing it as a cure for aging, but rather for age-related diseases such as diabetes. Still, some audience members were clearly eager to try it. “Should I take one or two?” a viewer asked Pappas. The filmmaker pointed out that David Sinclair himself has professed to taking resveratrol. True, but Sinclair is the first to admit that resveratrol has not been scientifically proven to extend life or cure disease. And when some Web-based sellers of resveratrol supplements started using Sinclair’s name and likeness without his permission to sell their products, he was none too happy about it.

To Age or Not to Age raises many more questions than it answered. It features, for example, a 400-year-old clam that was discovered a few years back in Iceland and is now being studied by scientists in Wales. But how do they know it’s 400 years old? And how are they unlocking the secrets to the clam’s extraordinarily long life? The film doesn’t say. I did some Googling and at least found the answer to the first question. Turns out clams have lines on their shells–sort of like tree rings–that reveal their age. This clam was indeed alive when Shakespeare was writing his masterpieces. Question is, will any of us still be alive when he reveals the clues to his immortality?

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Posted in Science of Aging


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