Developing Applications of Sirtuin Research

As Chris Patil notes, things have moved fast in the field of sirtuin research:

The work represents the culmination of a huge amount of progress in a relatively short time: in less than 15 years, the sirtuin story has evolved from basic biology in the simplest model organisms, through exhaustive (though essential) testing in larger animals, into a source of potential therapies for a major human disease.

Furthermore, for the first time we have a clearly defined path toward the regulatory approval and widespread use of a compound that could be used as a frank anti-aging drug.

It's a good model for modern biotechnology research - an example of the speed with which mechanisms can be traced and understood, once a starting point is made. The process is ongoing, for many other proteins and genes related to beneficial metabolic response to calorie restriction. Sirtuins are just the start.

I would not, however, agree that it is a good model for the application of such research. One can applaud the success of researchers in obtaining funding and carving out a viable, competitive, well-funded field from the first studies of genes and calorie restriction. But the path to applied longevity science is not to call triumph at finally pushing something (anything!) past the impossible hoops blocking applied aging research - it should be to destroy the regulatory nonsense rules preventing progress.

Why, despite the great range of potential applicable biotechnology, do we not see hundreds of millions of dollars invested in startups attempting to address the aging process? The answer is buried in this New York Times article on Sirtris: "Dr. Westphal and Mr. Sinclair stress that they are not working to 'cure' aging, a condition that, so far at least, is common to all humanity and that most physicians do not consider a disease. 'Curing aging is not an endpoint the federal drug agency would recognize,' Dr. Westphal says dryly. Instead, both men say, they are working to ameliorate the diseases of aging." For so long as unelected government employees can declare, with no accountability and full force of law, what medicine is permitted and what is not, there will be no direct venture funded efforts to cure aging - or even to take the first steps by aiming to repair specific, identified age-related damage in order to intervene in the aging process. There is no lack of companies, research groups and billions of dollars ready to be directed to that end, as any brief survey of the biotechnology marketplace will show you - but the ignorant few who write policy continue to bury all that potential. The work that could have gone to advance the cause of healthy longevity is instead confined towards the backwaters of patching specific age-related conditions.

The press is running another round of articles on Sirtris Pharmaceuticals at the present time, focusing on the next line of drugs that improve greatly upon the basic model of resveratrol - at least in terms of their effectiveness in stimulating sirtuin activity.

The potent new pills mimic resveratrol in mice by activating the SIRT-1 gene, which appears to trigger a process called caloric restriction. In many organisms, that process acts to slow down aging and ramp up cellular defenses in the face of a reduced diet during times of scarce food supplies. Sirtris's new compounds, however, act without the little critters having to reduce their diet.

As most of you probably know, I'm not convinced that this is all any more than a sideshow. For one, it is in no way an attempt to directly repair the damage of aging, and for two, for so long as the present regulatory structure forbids the development and commercialization of real, working anti-aging medicine, there is no financial incentive to develop real, working anti-aging medicine. Even if you have a promising start, of any sort, every venture-funded, competitive effort to turn science into medical technology will go towards turning that start into a patch, an after-the-fact and comparatively ineffective treatment for some age-related condition, rather than a treatment for aging itself.

Here is a simple rule for life: you won't accomplish task A by working on task B. That task A is cut off by regulatory fiat is the real problem here.


Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.