Age Wave: The Science Behind Living Longer -- In-Depth Doctor's Interview
Lenny Guarente, Ph.D., a biologist at MIT in Boston, Mass., talks about the future of supplements that may help people stay younger and healthier longer.
Is there a magic pill for living younger longer?
Dr. Lenny Guarente: I don’t think there’s any one magic pill yet. I think there’s a lot of progress in basic research on aging, and there is drug development that is following on the heels of that progress, and there will certainly be pills and drugs that we can take to stay younger and healthier longer.
How long will it be before those drugs are available?
Dr. Guarente: I think we’re going to see the fruits of this hit the marketplace in the next few years. I think that this is imminent. There is a lot of activity now, there’s a lot of attention focused on this area, and I think that we’re really going to see tremendous progress in drug development in the next few years. We’ve seen enormous progress in the basic research over the past decade or 15 years, and we have very robust mechanisms in cells that we know function to keep cells young and that would work, I think, to keep a whole animal young, so that I think that we’re really right on the verge of being able to gain the fruits of all this work that we’ve been involved in over several decades.
What age groups do you think would benefit from it?
Dr. Guarente: I think all generations, but I can name a few groups. I think the people who would really benefit would be people who really care about their health already, and are already doing things as well as they can do, and getting a little bit older. They will be able to have this additional benefit to keep them healthier longer, which may translate to being productive and being able to work five, maybe even ten years longer as an active contributor to society, so that’s not something small. I also think that younger people could probably begin to benefit. We’re seeing in this country lately a tremendous increase in the number of young people who are developing diseases that normally we associate with old people, for example, diabetes, and I think that the kind of drugs that are developed to what I work on, which are the sirtuins, will have immediate application for diabetes and metabolic diseases, and that those will benefit people in a younger category, as well as benefit older people who are already trying their best to stay healthy.
What are sirtuins?
Dr. Guarente: Sirtuins are a family of genes that we discovered in yeast can make the cells live longer. We discovered that about 10, 15 years ago, and it turns out that these genes are conserved. They’re present in all organisms, including people. We have the genes, and we believe that keeping these genes functioning properly can forestall aging. It can slow down aging, I think, in every critter we know of, including people, so the trick will be figuring out exactly how to do that.
How far away do you think we are from that?
Dr. Guarente: I think that people know what the targets are that we want to try to go after, so drug companies, I think, are going after these targets now. The question is – how quickly can we bring a safe drug to the marketplace? You never know in this business, but I think it’s imminent because of first of all, the activity that’s going on, and secondly, the demand. The population is getting older and the demand for this kind of thing is growing. It’s already enormous, so I think we’ll see this kind of supplement to what we do now to keep young very soon.
What is resveratrol?
Dr. Guarente: Resveratrol was kind of the proof of principle compound. It was the first compound that was discovered by looking for compounds that could activate sirtuins – this was seven years ago. With resveratrol, it turns out it’s a natural product. It’s found in plants, and in particular, in red wine, and it has health benefits in rodents, there’s no question about that, and I believe it would have health benefits in people as well. As I said, it’s just the initial proof of principle compound, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that with very, very careful analysis and work, you’ll be able to develop better drugs that maybe are not natural compounds, that are synthetic compounds, that work much better.
Are there any risks to taking Resveratrol right now?
Dr. Guarente: I don’t know of any risks that have been associated with Resveratrol. There have been some human trials on Resveratrol, and I haven’t heard of any deleterious effects.
Since we don’t yet know the long-term effects, could it be something that builds up inside of you that later harms your health?
Dr. Guarente: That could be said of any new drug that people take. Of course, nobody does a clinical study that goes over 10, 20, 30 years, so we don’t know.
Would you feel comfortable taking Resveratrol?
Dr. Guarente: I think I would. I don’t, it turns out, because I’m waiting for a source of very pure, very well-defined Resveratrol, then I would take it. I would have no hesitation.
What are your thoughts on taking human growth hormones from pregnant women?
Dr. Guarente: I think the whole growth hormone area of research right now is very murky. There are some people who say that supplementing with growth hormone will keep you young. In a way, that makes sense, because growth hormone declines with normal aging, so if you could bring it back in a supplement, it would make sense that you would stay young, and in fact, it does build muscle and so on and so forth, and fights against frailty. On the other hand, studies from laboratory organisms, like roundworm, would suggest that growth hormone is a bad thing in that it can cause premature aging if you get too much of it. It might be a matter of just balancing, getting the right amount, but I would say from my taste, there’s enough confusion in that area right now that I would stay away from it.
What do you think of rapamycin?
Dr. Guarente: Rapamycin is something people have been taking for many years to prevent tissue graft rejection. It suppresses the immune system, and that’s what it’s been used for in people over a long period of time. This stuff about rapamycin being an anti-aging compound is brand new. The thing we know for sure about rapamycin in people is that it will suppress the immune system, which in healthy, normal people, is not a good thing. You don’t want to suppress the immune system, so adding all that together, rapamycin is definitely something I would stay away from.
Why would anyone decide to take it, then, thinking that it would help them stay younger?
Dr. Guarente: Because there’s some data in laboratory mice that finds mice that are given rapamycin live a little bit longer than mice that are given a placebo.
Are people translating that over that it would also do the same in humans now?
Dr. Guarente: I wouldn’t. My own awareness is not that it’s the latest and greatest thing on the internet, but there are some people, at least, who are enthusiastic about rapamycin.
What could be the risks if you take it?
Dr. Guarente: As I said, the risk is suppressing the immune system, so you become susceptible to infections and everything that the immune system fights against.
You mentioned that possibly on the horizon, we could see some sort of pill that would allow people to live longer and younger. Do you think that we have the means and the money to be able to keep up with people living so much longer?
Dr. Guarente: I would have two responses to that. The first is that society has been living longer for the past 100 years or more. It’s always true that the current generation has better prospects health-wise than the previous generation, and 100 years ago, the average life span was in the 40’s in this country, so this has already happened. It’s nothing new. You can answer the question yourself of whether you would want to go back 100 years or not, so I think that we’re certainly ready for it. I also think that the idea that it’s going to cause us massive burdens on society is mistaken. I think that it could do exactly the opposite in keeping people healthier and productive longer in preventing long periods of disability, which is really what saps the health care system. If you can have treatments that would keep people more active and healthy and avoid these periods of morbidity, then I think that could actually save money on the health care system and ease the burden to society.
Do you see any risks to it at all?
Dr. Guarente: No, I don’t, actually. I see it in the spirit of medical research as it’s been practiced over the past century that we’re always trying to create better health for ourselves, and I think that this is right in the main of that.
How big of a role do genes play in how long you’ll live, and being young and youthful while you’re doing it?
Dr. Guarente: They play some role. There’s no one thing that’s more important than anything else, but clearly, genes play a role in determining longevity, as does lifestyle, as does chance, so it’s really a combination of things. We can’t control our genes – our genes are what they are – but what we can do potentially is design drugs and health supplements that might alleviate some of the deficits of having a bad gene here or a bad gene there, and that’s definitely possible. I think that’s definitely within our control, as scientists, to bring about these things, and I think you could even view these compounds, Resveratrol and the newer compounds that can activate sirtuins, as having this potential to maybe level the playing field a little bit for people who weren’t dealt the best hand with regard to their genetics, but might still be given a chance to live a healthy, long life.
Do you think that someday, we might actually see that medicine could outweigh the gene role?
Dr. Guarente: Yes, and I think that’s what medicine does. That’s already happened. I mean, whenever we figure out a way to treat a disease that’s genetically based, that’s what we’ve done. That’s one of the things, but of course, not all ill health comes from genes or bad genes, so medicine is bigger than that even, but that’s one of the things that it should do is help to compensate for genes that are not doing the job as well as they should.
What do you say to the naysayers out there that say we can’t do this, that we’re going to have 100 year-old people, and we’re not going to be able to take care of them?
Dr. Guarente: I’d say what if you have 100 year-old people who are healthy instead of 80 year-old people who are not healthy? Where’s the upkeep there? I think the naysayers I encounter are more of the type that say this is not possible, you’re simplistic, you’re simple minded thinking that these genes you study, these sirtuins, by themselves, are going to be enough to make people healthier longer, and that it’s naive to think you can do that. I just happen to disagree with them, but those are the naysayers that I encounter.
When you talk about the sirtuins, is that something that was discovered here at MIT?
Dr. Guarente: The discovery started 20 years ago. We started studying aging in a very simple system, which is yeast, which we happened to work on in the lab at that time. We transitioned our lab into aging by first studying aging in yeast, and we thought that what we were studying had applicability for yeast, but we never dreamed that it would have any sort of a general application. We discovered that the Sir2 gene in yeast promotes longevity in yeast cells, and that took ten years to make that discovery. I think since then, what we’re seeing is that things tend to be conserved from yeast to worms to mice to humans, and we really think that there’s ample evidence now that in mammals, these Sir2 genes are going to have a tremendous utility, not just for living longer, but for slowing down aging, which is going to have the effect of slowing down the diseases that occur with aging. I think that’s going to be the big application of this research, at least in the initial phase, is a new way to fight the major diseases of aging, diabetes for example. The way we fight diabetes is with drugs that are really directed at diabetes. For cancer, we try to direct the drug at the cancer as specifically as we can. This idea is that we take this one risk factor for all of these late onset diseases, target it, and we’re going to have a benefit.
Where are we on this?
Dr. Guarente: I think we’ve come a long way. I think we understand this very well. I think it equates with a dietary intervention that we’ve known about a long time called calorie restriction, and I think that in rodents, there is ample evidence that calorie restriction will forestall diseases, so I think that this is all the same thing. You talk about slowing down aging, increasing life span, making people healthier, increasing health span, and I would put very, very importantly into that group, forestalling the major diseases of aging.
Is there anything that you do, that you could share with people to help stop the aging process?
Dr. Guarente: What I do myself, is I try to keep healthy. I exercise, I eat a reasonable diet. I don’t calorie restrict, but I eat a reasonable diet. I have a good idea of what a good body weight is for me, and if I stray from it, I do whatever I need to do to get back to it. I think for me, for someone my age, this is a good thing to do, but I certainly plan, in the next phase of life, to take advantage of any supplements or drugs that are out there that might help.
What supplements are you taking now?
Dr. Guarente: I take aspirin. The things I would consider in the near term are Resveratrol, and possibly a statin to lower cholesterol, even though I don’t have high cholesterol – I’m sort of somewhere in the middle. I think that all the data says that the lower the cholesterol, the better.
END OF INTERVIEW
This information is intended for additional research purposes only. It is not to be used as a prescription or advice from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. or any medical professional interviewed. Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. assumes no responsibility for the depth or accuracy of physician statements. Procedures or medicines apply to different people and medical factors; always consult your physician on medical matters.
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