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Fountain of youth in sight

Discoveries in the drug realm are changing the world – and maybe extending your life. Pharmaceutical company Sirtris claims to have inadvertently discovered the fountain of youth while testing a compound intended to cure diabetes.

Sirtris’s website claims the company is “creating revolutionary medicines for diseases of aging” and according to S. Jay Olshansky, co-author of The Quest for Immortality, they may be right.

“This has the potential to be a blockbuster drug,” Olshansky said.

A compound in red wine that is believed to increase lifespan inspired testers to create the drug. The compound, resveratrol, is found in the skin of grapes, and tampers with sirtuins, proteins that regulate the body’s responses to stress by causing it to enter an energy-saving mode, which some believe can increase lifespan. The energy-saving mode triggered by resveratrol is identical to that achieved by low-calorie diets – the only proven way to increase maximum lifespan – and leads to many healthy body changes, including lowered cholesterol and blood pressure. The biology behind the longevity that comes with restricting calories is largely unknown.

Although resveratrol has been seen to increase lifespan by over 50 per cent for yeast and fish, the effects in humans may not be as advantageous. Because humans break down resveratrol so slowly, they would need to eat a few kilograms per day to enjoy any benefit.

Sirtris has found a way around this obstacle, though, by modifying resveratrol so that the body does not break it down.

This modified version of resveratrol, called SRT501, will initially and primarily be marketed as a cure for diabetes, despite its potential to combat other diseases of aging.

According to Dr. Leonard P. Guarente, the drug will likely have many beneficial effects in humans.

“I think it’s clear that these sirtuin-based drugs have a lot of beneficial effects in animal models. So, it would be astonishing if they did not have a lot of applicability to human health. I think that’s on the horizon, right away with this diabetes drug,” Guarente said.

SRT501 is already in phase two clinical trials for type II diabetes, and is beginning trials as a cancer medication. Cardiovascular and metabolic disease medications are not far behind, and SRT501 should hit the market in five to ten years.

SRT501 functions in a unique way; it will prolong the number of healthy, middle years of life, rather than the time spent in nursing homes, as many medical breakthroughs involving diseases of the elderly do.

Although no one yet knows exactly how many middle years SRT501 will provide, popular studies estimate a decade.

If SRT501 does significantly extend life and cure diseases of aging, the populations of countries with high life expectancies will grow in size and productivity. Guarente speculated that the drug might also have a social upshot.

“I think it’s going to help to have people with the wisdom and experience of a lifetime staying healthier longer,” he said.

Olshansky, too, noted that increasing lifespans would benefit society.

“The postponing of bodily deterioration will have enormous social, economical, and health dividends for today’s generations and for future generations,” he said.

But Michelle Dipp, director of corporate development at Sirtris, cautioned such optimism, asserting that at first SRT501 will only be available as a treatment option for diabetes.

“SRT501 will be used to treat diseases of aging. It will not be marketed as an anti-aging drug,” she said.

Yet Guarente speculated that prudent people who do not have diabetes will use the SRT501 once it hits the market provided that it lacks side effects.

“If it looks good in phase two, I’m going to start taking it. Preventatively. Why not?”