More medical researchers are questioning the standard one-disease-at-a-time approach that has dominated the search for cures to aging-related illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. On November 21st, Brandon Keim reported, on the Wired Science blog, that researchers frustrated with the limited success of the narrower conventional approach are opening up to the idea of using mitochondrial medicine. The aim is to ward off the diseases caused by aging by addressing their shared sources, repairing and preventing the damage caused by the free oxygen radicals released as the mitochondria degenerate and break down.
A number of new anti-aging drugs are in development and could be on the market within the next five years. Resveratrol, probably the best known of the mitochondrial drugs (it’s that stuff in red wine), is currently in clinical human trials for diabetes. While first experiments using resveratrol in mice did not appear to extend their maximum lifespan, it did have the expected effect of mimicking the cellular effects of caloric restriction, stimulating genes called sirtuins that are involved in the aging process. Although the mice died within their allotted biological span, they were "protected from the ravages of aging," according to Keim. Keim reports that the CEO of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, the company that is leading the resveratrol trials, claims that all the major pharmaceutical firms are putting research money into mitochondrial medicine.
On November 27th, Science Daily reported that Harvard researchers Philipp Oberdoerffer and David Sinclair have shown that sirtuins regulate gene expression by preserving the integrity of chromatin, and they repair damaged DNA — but they can’t do both at once. Sometimes, when sirtuins work to repair DNA, some of the damaging genes they keep silent express themselves. This now seems to be the actual cause of aging. The article indicates that sirtuins could be part of a universal mechanism of aging that evolution has conserved for a billion years. A cell with more sirtuins — or a more efficient distribution of them — would be able to reduce or prevent the expression of genes linked to the phenotypes of aging.
Research scientists vary in their optimism about future sirtuin and mitochondrial therapies, but most now see these types of interventions in the diseases related to aging as inevitable. Some of these therapies are expected to be inexpensive. Sirtris anticipates its resveratrol drug will sell for no more than $4 a pill — in order to be competitive with other diabetes drugs — and it will cost “pennies” once the patent expires.