Report from Harvard Medical School’s Aging & Healthy Lifespan Conference
If you wanted to hear about the latest research findings on sirtuins and resveratrol, you couldn’t have picked a better venue than Harvard Medical School’s first-ever Aging & Healthy Lifespan conference. It featured two simultaneous speaker tracks –- one on new research and insights in the science of aging, the other on emerging social trends in lifestyles, behaviors and activities of the aging population. The speakers representing the science side, were nearly all protégés of Dr. Leonard “Lenny” Guarente, of MIT. Lenny started his work in the early 1990’s and slowly uncovered the benefits of proteins known as sirtuins, which appear to be the connection between why caloric restriction generally results in longevity.
Two of Lenny’s researchers, David Sinclair and Christoph Westphal, went on to co-found the sirtuins drug discovery company Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was sold to GSK earlier this year for $750 million. David and Christoph both spoke about the broad possible health benefits that could come from their sirtuin-based drugs. These range from treatments for Type 2 Diabetes and related complications, mitochondrial disorders, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. Early clinical studies have demonstrated promising results in Type 2 Diabetes. During David’s talk, he speculated that when the patents run out on the sirtuin-based drugs that Sirtris developed, they could become as cheap and ubiquitous as aspirin. He seemed optimistic that we could and would find molecules which will give us radically better healthy lifespan.
Paul McGlothin, recently interviewed by h+, spoke about a new vision of CR, one that moves away from a total focus on calories and emphasizes the latest findings on cell signaling and ways people can apply them practically to their lives.
Cynthia Kenyon, a professor at UCSF, spoke. She was able to tweak genes in the tiny worm, C-elegans, causing it to live many times it’s normal lifespan. Her discoveries demonstrated that genes actually influence lifespan. Before her work, it was assumed that aging was caused primarily by an entropic breakdown of our systems. However, she realized that some species, that were nearly identical genetically, had radically different lifespans and that this could only be explained by a small number of genetic differences. A soft-spoken woman, Cynthia exudes an excitement about the research she’s doing. Her research suggested that tweaking genes in humans could also control our aging and provide us with many times our normal lifespan. One of the tools now available to researchers like Cynthia are micro-array technology (gene chips) which can compare all of the genes of a young worm with an old worm, or a normal worm with a long-lived worm. By finding out which genes are turned up or down, we can look for compounds that target those genes and attempt to turn them on or off without harmful side effects. She was careful not to advocate extreme lifespan, although during a Q&A, she implied that there’s no reason why we could not live much longer than currently possible. During a later panel discussion, Cynthia pointed out that the public needs to rethink what it means to be “old.” She said she can picture the day when a middle-aged man meets a beautiful, 40’s-looking woman and after some conversation asks her her age. “92” could be her response, and if you laugh at this, Cynthia says you need to readjust your thinking too.
The only disappointment for this conference attendee was the fact that the speakers were extremely conservative in their speculations about where we would be with anti-aging in the future. Lenny Guarente in particular said several times “imagine 100 years from now, and we have been able to utilize these therapies to extend our lives by 25 or 50 years.” I’m sorry, Lenny, but the world’s going to be unbelievably different in just 25 to 35 years, due to Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns (the application of Moore’s law to the various converging branches of science which rely on information), and if we have only increased lifespan by 50 years by the end of this Century, we are in big trouble!