More on anti-aging research: Continuing controversy, opportunity, and good news

1. Continuing Controversy

In our blog post on 10 February 2010, we discussed the controversy over Sirtris/GlaxoSmithKline’s reseveratrol formulation, and its second-generation sirtuin-1 (SIRT1) activators. Researchers at Amgen and Pfizer found that the apparent in vitro activation of SIRT1 by these compounds was an artifact of the experimental method used by Sirtris researchers. The Amgen group found that the fluorescent SIRT1 peptide substrate used in the Sirtris assay is a substrate for SIRT1, but in the absence of the covalently linked fluorophore, the peptide is not a SIRT1 substrate. Although resveratrol appears to be an activator of SIRT1 if the artificial fluorophore-conjugated substrate is used, resveratrol does not activate SIRT1 in vitro as determined by assays using two other non-fluorescently-labeled substrates.

Last month, I attended two meetings at which this controversy was discussed. One was the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston. At that conference, Christoph Westphal (then CEO of Sirtris) gave a keynote address. In that presentation, Mr. Wesphal stuck with the story that Sirtis’ compounds and its assays are valid. The day after his presentation, Mr. Westphal resigned as Sirtris’ CEO, and now is the head of GSK’s SR One venture fund. He and other Sirtris and Vertex founders also started the Longwood Founders Fund in February of this year.

At the other meeting (which was Harvard-related), one of the most respected leaders of the longevity-related pathway field (whose name I am withholding) stated that the whole resveratrol/sirtuin-activator story is nonsense. He did, however, concur with our views on anti-aging pathways as expressed in our November 8, 2009 article on this blog. We do not go as far as calling the resveratrol story nonsense, but remain unconvinced of the mechanistic basis for resveratrol action pending further evidence.

Meanwhile, Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” blog has a discussion of Mr. Wesphal’s talk at the Bio-IT conference.

In its 25 March 2010 issue, Nature also has a News Feature centered upon the controversy. This article (written by Cambridge MA-based Nature reporter Heidi Ledford) basically says that the controversy remains unsettled, but that several laboratories are working to resolve the assay issue. These include corporate researchers at Sirtris, Leonard Guarente of MIT (another leader in the longevity-related pathway field, who is co-chair of Sirtris’ scientific advisory board), and Anthony Sauve of Weill Cornell Medical School (also a member of Sirtris’ scientific advisory board).

2. Opportunity

There was a review of longevity-related pathways in the 16 April 2010 issue of Science. It covers all the bases of anti-aging research in yeast, worms, flies, and mammals, with an emphasis on the TOR and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) pathways. Sirtuins and resveratrol rate a minimal mention in the review.

Cynthia Kenyon, another leader in the longevity pathway field, published a review on the genetics of aging in a special Nature Insight section on aging in the 25 March 2010 issue. In this review, Dr. Kenyon discussed the panoply of aging-related pathways in worms, flies, and mice, especially the insulin/IGF-1 and TOR pathways, as well as several other biomolecules and biological processes. Dr. Kenyon discusses sirtuins, but notes the unknowns in aging-related mechanisms involving sirtuins, especially in mammals. She also notes the difficulties in interpreting results with resveratrol. In addition to the issue with the assays involving the fluorescent substrate, she notes that although (in studies conducted by Sirtris researchers and their academic colleagues) resveratrol has been found to extend the lifespan of mice fed a high-fat diet, it did not extend the lifespan of mice fed a normal diet. Dr. Kenyon also cited the results of studies with resveratrol in yeast, worms, and flies that are not consistent with the hypothesis that resveratrol extends lifespan by acting as a sirtuin activator.

The bottom line of the discussion in the two reviews in Science and Nature is that lifespan is controlled by sets of complex, interacting pathways. Sirtuins represent only one control point in these pathways, which might not be the most important one. Thus no one company “owns” the anti-aging field in terms of drug discovery and development, and there is a lot of opportunity out there. Even Mr. Westphal stated as much in his Bio-IT World presentation.

Interestingly, Dr Kenyon notes that different closely related animals can have large differences in lifespan. For example, rats live for three years, but squirrels for 25. She speculates that differences in longevity might be easily evolvable, and mechanisms by which lifespan changes during evolution (perhaps involving mutations in regulatory genes or that affect rates of respiration) might constitute novel intervention points.

3. Good News

Now for some good news about aging. In an article in the 25 March 2010 Nature Insight section by James W Vaupel (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, and Duke University), the author presents evidence that human senescence (i.e., deterioration with age)—at least in advanced countries—has been postponed by a decade. This process, first noted in 1994, is continuing. The factors that are making this possible are prosperity (which promotes good health) and medicine (including medical and surgical interventions to prevent or treat disability, and public health efforts). These two factors enable people to reach old age in better health, as well as promoting better health in older people.

This ongoing postponement of senescence and mortality provides a foundation for ongoing anti-aging research and eventual treatments based on that research. (One must remember, however, that regulatory agencies as well as the practical considerations of drug development will not permit researchers and companies to utilize mortality as an endpoint in clinical trials. Companies must therefore develop putative “anti-aging drugs” for specific diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, cancer, various cardiovascular indications, and dementia.) The postponement of senescence also has profound implications for how one lives one’s life, as well as for social policy and the practice of medicine.

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