“Fountain of Youth” Pill Sparks Interest Among Scientists—And Billions of Investment Dollars

A recent announcement from well-regarded Harvard University geneticist David Sinclair caused quite a buzz in the scientific community: the 49-year-old claimed that scientific data demonstrates that he has taken two decades off his biological age by ingesting a molecule that his research showed boosted the health and life span of mice.

Of course, the potential offered by Sinclair’s claims also must be tempered by the fact that he has not yet published scientific research that supports them—as well as by his own financial interests in being proven correct. Sinclair is a named investor on a patent held by Elysium Health, a company that sells “NAD boosters” like those Sinclair uses for $60 a bottle. He has also invested in InsideTracker, the company he used to measure his “biological” age.

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In other words, distinguishing hype from reality in regard to a true anti-aging solution has become more difficult as respected scientists throw their reputations and that of their institutions behind promising yet unproven treatments—particularly when many of them have a financial interest in doing so.

Investors have been pouring billions of dollars into the field, even in the face of prominent failures. For example, past research conducted by Sinclair and his colleagues raised interest in the anti-aging possibilities offered by resveratrol, an ingredient found in red wine. Sinclair founded Sirtris in 2004 to test the molecule’s benefits, and told Science that it was “as close to a miraculous molecule as you can find.” GlaxoSmithKline bought Sirtris in 2008 for $720 million. Within three years, Glaxo stopped its research due to underwhelming results and potential side effects—but Sinclair had already received $8 million from the sale in addition to an annual consulting fees of $297,000.

Because the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t classify aging as a disease, potential anti-aging cures typically fall outside traditional clinical trial procedures. Such supplements are also exempt from the same safety and efficacy testing that pharmaceuticals must undergo.

Former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier offers a succinct warning to would-be investors looking at potential longevity cures: “A susceptible billionaire meets a very good salesman scientist who looks him deeply in the eyes and says, ‘There’s no reason why we can’t have a therapy that will let you live 400 or 600 years.’ The billionaire will look back and see someone who is at MIT or Harvard and say, ‘Show me what you can do.’”