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By Marisa Taylor, Kaiser Health News
David Sinclair, a renowned Harvard University geneticist, recently made a startling assertion: Scientific data shows that he has knocked more than two decades off his biological age, 49.
What’s his secret? He says his daily regimen includes ingesting a molecule his own research found improved the health and lengthened the lifespan of mice. Sinclair now boasts online that he has the lung capacity, cholesterol and blood pressure of a young adult and the “heart rate of an athlete.”
Despite his enthusiasm, published scientific research has not yet demonstrated that the molecule works in humans as it does in mice. Sinclair, however, has a considerable financial stake in his claims being proven correct, and has lent his scientific prowess to commercializing possible life extension products such as molecules known as “NAD boosters.” NAD stands for nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, a key compound in all living creatures.
If you say you’re a terrific scientist and you have a treatment for aging, it gets a lot of attention.
Jeffrey Flier, former Harvard Medical School dean
His financial interests include being listed as an inventor on a patent licensed to Elysium Health, a supplement company that sells a NAD booster in pills for $60 a bottle. He’s also an investor in InsideTracker, the company that he says measured his age.
Discerning hype from reality in the longevity field has become tougher than ever as reputable scientists such as Sinclair and pre-eminent institutions like Harvard align themselves with promising but unproven interventions — and at times promote and profit from them.
Fueling the excitement, investors pour billions of dollars into the field even as many of the products already on the market face fewer regulations and therefore a lower threshold of proof.
“If you say you’re a terrific scientist and you have a treatment for aging, it gets a lot of attention,” said Jeffrey Flier, a former Harvard Medical School dean who has been critical of the hype. “There is financial incentive and inducement to overpromise before all the research is in.”
Elysium, co-founded in 2014 by a prominent MIT scientist to commercialize the molecule nicotinamide riboside, a type of NAD booster, highlights its “exclusive” licensing agreement with Harvard and the Mayo Clinic and Sinclair’s role as an inventor.
Further adding scientific gravitas to its brand, the website lists eight Nobel laureates and 19 other prominent scientists who sit on its scientific advisory board.
Some scientists and institutions have grown uneasy with such ties. The Milner Therapeutics Institute at Cambridge University in England announced in 2017 that it would receive funding from Elysium, cementing a research “partnership.” But after hearing complaints from faculty that the institute was associating itself with an unproven supplement, it quietly decided not to renew the funding or the company’s membership to its “innovation” board.
“The sale of nutritional supplements of unproven clinical benefit is commonplace,” said Stephen O’Rahilly, the director of Cambridge’s Metabolic Research Laboratories. “What is unusual in this case is the extent to which institutions and individuals from the highest levels of the academy have been co-opted to provide scientific credibility for a product whose benefits to human health are unproven.”
A generation ago, scientists often ignored or debunked claims of a “fountain of youth” pill.
“Until about the early 1990s, it was kind of laughable that you could develop a pill that would slow aging,” said Richard Miller, a biogerontologist at the University of Michigan who heads one of three labs funded by the National Institutes of Health to test such promising substances on mice. “It was sort of a science fiction trope. Recent research has shown that pessimism is wrong.”
Mice given molecules such as rapamycin live as much as 20 percent longer. Other substances, such as 17 alpha estradiol and the diabetes drug Acarbose, have been shown to be just as effective — in mouse studies. Not only do mice live longer, but, depending on the substance, they avoid cancers, heart ailments and cognitive problems.
But human metabolism is different from that of rodents. And our existence is unlike a mouse’s life in a cage. What is theoretically possible in the future remains unproven in humans and not ready for sale, experts say.
“None of this is ready for prime time. The bottom line is I don’t try any of these things,” said Felipe Sierra, the director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “Why don’t I? Because I’m not a mouse.”
Concerns about whether animal research could translate into human therapy have not stopped scientists from racing into the market, launching startups or lining up investors. Some true believers, including researchers and investors, are taking the substances themselves while promoting them as the next big thing in aging.
“While the buzz encourages investment in worthwhile research, scientists should avoid hyping specific” substances, said S. Jay Olshansky, a professor who specializes in aging at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Yet some scientific findings are exaggerated to help commercialize them before clinical trials in humans demonstrate both safety and efficacy, he said.
Sinclair practices what he preaches — or promotes. On his LinkedIn bio and in media interviews, he describes how he now regularly takes resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine with potential anti-aging properties; the diabetes drug metformin, which holds promise in slowing aging; and nicotinamide mononucleotide, a substance known as NMN that his own research showed rejuvenated mice.
In an interview with Kaiser Health News, Sinclair said he’s not recommending that others take those substances.
The bottom line is I don’t try any of these things. Why don’t I? Because I’m not a mouse.
Felipe Sierra, National Institute on Aging
“I’m not claiming I’m actually younger. I’m just giving people the facts,” he said, adding that he’s sharing the test results from InsideTracker’s blood tests, which calculate biological age based on biomarkers in the blood. “They said I was 58, and then one or two blood tests later they said I was 31.4.”
Sinclair is involved either as a founder, an investor, an equity holder, a consultant or a board member with 28 companies, according to a list of his financial interests. At least 18 are involved in anti-aging in some way, including studying or commercializing NAD boosters.
Sinclair and Harvard declined to release details on how much money he — or the university — is generating from these disclosed outside financial interests.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t categorize aging as a disease, which means potential medicines aimed at longevity generally can’t undergo traditional clinical trials aimed at testing their effects on human aging. In addition, the FDA does not require supplements to undergo the same safety or efficacy testing as pharmaceuticals.
The banner headline on Elysium’s website said “clinical trial results prove safety and efficacy” of its supplement, Basis, which contains the molecule nicotinamide riboside and pterostilbene. But the company’s research did not demonstrate that the supplement was effective at anti-aging in humans, as it may be in mice. It simply showed that the pill increased the levels of the substance in blood cells.
“Elysium is selling pills to people online with the assertion that the pills are ‘clinically proven,’ ” said O’Rahilly. “Thus far, however, the benefits and risks of this change in chemistry in humans is unknown.”
If a substance meets the FDA’s definition of a supplement and is advertised that way, then the agency can’t take action unless it proves a danger, said Alta Charo, a former bioethics policy adviser to the Obama administration. Pharmaceuticals must demonstrate safety and efficacy before being marketed.
“This is a recipe for some really unfortunate problems down the road,” said Charo, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. “It may turn out that a lot of this stuff turns out to be benignly useless. But for all we know, it’ll be dangerous.”
KHN senior correspondent Jay Hancock contributed to this report.
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.