To some, age reversal may seem like the stuff of science fiction. But Dr. David Sinclair, the Co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Molecular Biology of Aging and a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, is working to make it a reality. Sinclair, who was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2014, has already identified a chemical that may reverse the aging process. One day, increasing the levels of that chemical in humans could change the way we live and age.
We spoke to Dr. Sinclair about his anti-aging research, and he filled us in on the future of the science.
What is Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and why do we need to study it?
NAD is a chemical found in every living organism and is essential for life. Recently, scientists have discovered that our bodies also use NAD to turn on our defenses against aging. When we exercise or diet, NAD levels go up and we become healthier. The problem is that as we age, our body makes less and less NAD. We need to find ways to boost it up again.
How do you envision the type of medications or treatments that will be available to fight aging?
Doctors will prescribe medicines for a particular disease but, as a side effect, those medications will work to prevent dozens of others. As we get better at reversing aging it will be possible to take one medicine and within weeks feel and even look younger. Imagine going to a doctor to get a pill for diabetes, and this same medicine will prevent heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancer, and will give you more vitality too. This is easy in mice. Trying to do it in humans is now the challenge.
How have attitudes about lifespan extension evolved since you first entered the field? How do you see that reflected in the type and amount of research that's being done?
When I started in the field, aging research was the backwater of biology. The idea that you could find a molecule that would prevent many diseases at once was considered impossible. Then, in the 1990s, labs around the world discovered single genes that control the aging process. It made it possible to imagine a drug that could turn on the body's defenses against aging and slow down many diseases at once. The research became respectable and began to be published in the world's leading scientific journals. It is no longer embarrassing for scientists to say they work on aging.
You've also looked into the anti-aging effects of resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine. What did you discover?
We discovered that resveratrol activates a very special enzyme in the body called SIRT1 that protects us from diseases of aging and controls how fast we age. Resveratrol does not act primarily as an antioxidant. It is far more interesting and powerful than that. Resveratrol turns on our body's genetic defenses against diseases and aging itself. We are now working on molecules that are 1000 times more effective than resveratrol at turning on SIRT1.
What would a world in which humans live much longer be like?
It will be a world that will look back on today the way we look back at the days before antibiotics. It will be a world where we do not have to worry about getting cancer in our 50s and 60s or getting Alzheimer's in our 70s and 80s. We will be able to play tennis with our great grandkids and will be productive members of society until the very end, perhaps around 100 or older. It will be a world where people will not spend ten years of their lives in a nursing home. This will be a much more productive and richer society to live in. Retirement will have to occur later in life, perhaps 75 or 80. But then you can look forward to 20 years of healthy retirement and not worry about ending up being spoon fed in a nursing home and being a burden on your children.
How can regenerative medicine extend lifespans while ensuring a high quality of life?
My work has shown that the reason we are able to extend lifespan is because we prevent diseases. I do not know of a way to extend lifespan without making an animal healthier. High quality-of-life and increased lifespan go together. They are inseparable.
How do you think living longer and healthier lives will affect the economy?
It’s well accepted by economists that GDP will increase with people leading longer, more productive lives. A ten percent reduction in just one major disease saves over a trillion dollars in the long run, which is money that can be spent on more productive pursuits than caring for the sick and elderly. Health and wealth are inextricable and they reinforce each other.
Based on your current research, are there things people can do already to help slow or reverse aging?
We know that eating less and exercising turns on anti-aging enzymes such as SIRT1. But diet and exercise are not enough to reverse aging nor are these suitable for the elderly. This is why we need to keep working hard on the research.
As you continue your research about age reversal, what are you looking to discover?
We are looking for new molecules that are more potent than the ones we've previously discovered. We are excited about molecules that raise NAD levels. We recently showed that raising NAD levels in mice can reverse aspects of aging within just one week of treatment.
How much more do we know about aging than we did when you first entered the field?
We've gone through a paradigm shift in our understanding. When I first started, we thought we aged just like a car—things just wore out and then we died. Now we know we have inbuilt mechanics to take care of our bodies that we will one day be able to keep active through a simple pill. When I started in the field, I did not believe that I would see medicines that slow aging become a reality in my lifetime. Now I'm sure that I will. The only question is when.
Interview by Jordan G. Teicher.