Picture this: You’re having breakfast and, along with your usual multivitamin, you take another pill. But it isn’t filled with minerals orantioxidants – it’s a tablet to prevent ageing and the diseases that come with it.
This might sound like a scene from a sci-fi film, but it’s a real prospect that’s been put forward by Australian researcher Professor David Sinclair. Some are calling his work a discovery of that elusive elixir of youth, while others are labelling it sacrilegious. Sinclair, prefers to stick to the scientific facts: “We finally have the technology. It’s just a matter of having the money to execute [it].”
One pill to conquer many diseases
If Sinclair’s name sounds familiar that’s because the 45-year-old scientist, who also works out of Harvard Medical School in the US, was responsible for bringing resveratrol (an antioxidant that’s found in red wine and berries) to the world’s attention in 2006.
He found that it could activate an anti-ageing enzyme in the body known as SIRT1 and inhibit the ill effects of ageing diseases in mice.
Since then, Sinclair – who was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People In The World” in April – has been leading a team of researchers at The University of New South Wales (UNSW) with similar success.
Their work is focused on the entire family that SIRT1 belongs to – a group of seven enzymes known as sirtuins. It’s their role to protect the body against disease, and they’re naturally boosted by a low-calorie diet and exercise.
As we age, though, our levels of the chemical nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) drop, and this causes the disease-fighting abilities of sirtuins to simultaneously slump.
Last year, however, Sinclair and his team proved they could target and boost SIRT1 using synthetic activators. Now they’re dedicated to finding a way to harness all seven sirtuins, instead of just one, to super-charge the body’s all-round disease-fighting skills.
Dr Lindsay Wu, who works alongside Sinclair at the Lowy Cancer Research Centre’s Laboratory for Ageing Research at UNSW, says, “This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on in my life – ageing basically causes every noncommunicable disease.”
If the team can get all the sirtuins firing, they believe age-related illnesses could become a thing of the past. At the moment, doctors treat conditions such as heart disease or diabetes separately, Wu says. However, their research could mean ageing is tackled as a whole disease in itself.
Sinclair expands on this idea. “In the near future, there will be medicine for one disease, say diabetes, [but it] would also prevent cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s as a side effect.”
Our life expectancies could increase by 20 to 30 per cent, too, not because people will stay older for longer, Sinclair says, “but because they stay younger”.
Human trials on the horizon
The next step is human trials. Last December, Sinclair’s team successfully injected the molecule nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) into old mice. “Our cells take up NMN and turn it into NAD,” he says. “The effects of ageing reversal were seen in one week.”
At the time, they likened the result to having a 60-year-old person suddenly feel like a 20-year-old. “Trials have already started in diseases like psoriasis,” Sinclair adds. “I’m also working on taking NMN into human trials.”
In other words, watch this space. Wu says the Australian team has recently received some amazing results with regards to treating livercancer (their findings are yet to be published in a scientific journal). The team is also on the constant lookout for new genes that will expand their work beyond the field of sirtuins.
Sinclair, meanwhile, has grown accustomed to facing down his critics. “The same type of people said humans weren’t meant to have painless surgery or to fly,” he says. “We have the right to make our lives better.”
And that’s Sinclair’s hope for everyone, everywhere. As a separate venture, he’s co-founded a vaccine company with the aim of helping extend lives in developing countries. His purpose is simple: “[My] end goal is a humanity with longer, healthier lives.”
With the prospect of age-related diseases disappearing due to this research into sirtuins, could it somehow be harnessed to combat wrinkles, age-spots and sagginess, too? Sinclair is initially evasive about the prospect of his work being used for our exterior benefit, simply saying: “We’re working on that.” Later, however, he reveals a bit more about its potential. “I’m working on a skin cream that’s confidential [and we] don’t know the results yet. In theory, it would reverse skin ageing but we have to test it. It’s predicted to increase cellular energy.” We’ll take the answer to be a yes then…