Who would have thought it? The quest for eternal life, or at least prolonged youthfulness, has now migrated from the outer fringes of alternative medicine to the halls of Harvard Medical School.
At a conference on aging held here last week, the medical school’s dean, Jeffrey Flier, was to be seen greeting participants who ranged from members of the 120 club (they intend to live at least that long) to devotees of very low calorie diets.
The heavyweight at the conference was Sirtris Pharmaceuticals. The company is developing drugs that mimic resveratrol, a chemical found in some red wines. Resveratrol has been found to activate proteins called sirtuins, from which the company derives its name. Activation of sirtuins is thought to help the body ride out famines.
Mice and rats put on a diet with 30 percent fewer calories can live up to 40 percent longer. They seem to do so by avoiding the usual degenerative diseases of aging and so gain not just longer life but more time in good health.
Sirtris’s researchers think that drugs that activate sirtuins mimic this process, strengthening the body’s resistance to the diseases of aging. The company has developed thousands of small chemical compounds that are far more potent than resveratrol and so can be given in smaller doses.
In mice, sirtuin activators are effective against lung and colon cancer, melanoma, lymphoma, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease, said David Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School researcher and co-founder of Sirtris. The drugs reduce inflammation, and if they have the same effects in people, could help combat many diseases that have an inflammatory component, like irritable bowel syndrome and glaucoma.
Any sirtuin activator that averted all these diseases in people would be a rather remarkable drug. So there is considerable interest in how well Sirtris’s drug trials are going.
I have to agree with Nicholas Wade…it is a pleasant thought that, just possibly, a single drug might combat every degenerative disease of Western civilization.
Har! Check out their website. They’ve already been gobbled up by GSK. $720 million. Now, that’s a positive sign.