This Harvard Professor May Be the Indiana Jones Of the Northeast

Step aside, Indiana Jones. Professor David Sinclair may have found the answer to that “age-old” quest for immortality.

Sirtris, a $720 million GlaxoSmithKline company based in Cambridge, Mass., which will soon be absorbed into Glaxo's Phildelphia operations, has been carrying out research inspired by work from Professor Sinclair’s laboratory at the Harvard Medical School. Their aim was to exploit the possible anti-aging effects of molecules such as resveratrol, a minor ingredient of red wine. It has long been suggested that this polyphenol activates a member of a family of cellular proteins called sirtuins: namely sirtuin 1 (SIRT1), a protein that has been reported to promote longevity in C. Elegans (a roundworm used in scientific research), Drosophila (lab flies) and mice (mice).

There has been much debate over the years as to whether these longevity experiments were scientifically true, whether they could even be translated into humans and by what mechanism. At the molecular level, it is believed that artificially activating the protein SIRT1 (there are six others in the family) would mimic a stress-induced cellular response known as calorie restriction. This theory suggests that an increased production of SIRT1 in the cell could lead to a longer cellular lifespan, as SIRT1-rich cells would be able to avoid premature cell death, a process triggered by any number of damaging factors, giving them the extra time to repair the problem(s) and live longer.

Professor Sinclair’s recent data, in a Science magazine paper published this month, further reports that this particular polyphenol may act by specifically altering the shape of SIRT1, thus switching on a second protein, which in turn spikes production of the powerhouse of our cells, the mitochondria, conferring an energetic boost to the cell; a cascade that would allow the cell to run longer and faster.

In fact, Professor Sinclair’s lab hypothesize that “the pace of aging is not inexorable or predetermined, but can be altered if we know which pathways to target.” And with this latest addition to the literature, they have made significant progress towards a better understanding of this hotly debated family of proteins: the sirtuins. However, only time and more experiments (isn’t it always the way!?) will tell if this group of molecules, or the protein family of sirtuins themselves will offer any therapeutic value in the long run.

In the meantime, we have plenty of time to come to terms with a lifetime of well over a century. Eek!