TO AGE OR NOT TO AGE Featured in Irish Examiner

January 31, 2010

By Allin Quinlan, 31 October, 2009

[This article ran in the Irish Examiner prior to the Cork Film Festival, where TO AGE OR NOT TO AGE was screened as a work in progress.]


Imagine an anti-ageing drug that can keep you young and healthy.

Imagine that the same drug can also delay or mitigate the progress of major diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.

Now think about this:  such a substance actually exists – and the people in the know are taking it.

The Benjamin Button type discovery has sent shock waves around the globe and may yet bring the Nobel Prize to the scientists who unveiled it.

However for the rest of us, it’s still largely theoretical; the subject of newspaper articles and now, a major film.

On Halloween 2006, US film director Robert Pappas read an article in the New York Times about how scientists had managed to extend the life span and improve the health of monkeys by restricting their calorie intake.

Since the early ‘90s, he discovered, scientists had been investigating the effects of caloric restriction on a very special gene, SIR2.

 “In the early ‘90s, they found a gene that controlled ageing.  They realized that the same gene that controlled ageing in yeast controlled it in mice and fruit flies and worms—and in us.”

This gene it seemed was common to all creatures, including humans, and was stimulated through restricting calorie intake by about 30%.

“We all have this gene, though in some people there are more active copies of it,” says Pappas.

Scientists discovered that the gene, once stimulated by calorie restriction, could also control, delay and mitigate every major disease from cancer to heart disease and diabetes.

“Ageing and disease are so molecularly close that when you delay ageing you delay all diseases and by delaying all these diseases the side-effect is that animals lived longer,” explains Pappas.

The discovery is both elegant and simple—disease and ageing are often one and the same thing.  A body whose cellular activity is slowing down and producing errors in cell division is a welcome host for the illnesses.

Therefore, keeping the individual cells in clean working order, i.e., “youthful”, will produce greater resistance to diseases including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and lead to a longer, healthier life.

Two days later, Pappas recalls, the newspaper ran another story:

Scientists at Harvard and MIT had been investigating the molecular biology behind caloric restriction since the early ‘90s, but over the past several years, one of the Harvard scientists, David Sinclair, had identified a substance, Resveratrol—found in the skin of red grapes—which seemed to stimulate the gene without the animals having to suffer hunger.

Mice fed this substance were healthier, more athletic and lived longer.

“This gene is stimulated by calorie restriction or Resveratrol.  What happens is that the organism or animal ages more slowly and is better able to handle heat, heavy metals and a wide variety of stresses in the environment.

“When this gene is stimulated it slows down the ageing process,” says Pappas.

Something else struck Pappas—the lead scientist Sinclair was taking Resveratrol—along with his wife, his parents and many of his lab staff.

“I thought that was amazing, it made me say ‘wow’—do these scientists know something we don’t know?”

Thus began Pappas’ two-year odyssey of making a documentary about this incredible research programme.

To Age or Not to Age explains how the body can be stimulated to slow down the aging process in a simple way—it all comes down to keeping our cellular repair mechanisms in working order.

The 93 minute film tracks the pioneers of the field of anti-ageing research at leading institutes such as Harvard, Cambridge and MIT.

It follows the work of the scientists who made the massive breakthrough and, as a result, are viewed as potential Nobel Prize winners.

Their names may soon be as well known as Watson & Crick, Einstein or Pasteur;  for the moment let’s just mention Cynthia Kenyon, David Sinclair and Leonard Guarente.

Pappas now takes Resveratrol, along with his wife and others: “A lot of the scientists that are involved in the research are taking Resveratrol. If you really know the science it would be crazy not to take it.

“My wife and I decided over two years ago and we haven’t had as much as a cold.

“This probably is the most profound biomedical discovery that has ever happened to humanity in terms of biomedical science, it’s probably the biggest since the discovery of DNA,” says Pappas.

Next the scientists discovered how to make compounds that affect this gene, synthetic compounds which had a “vastly stronger effect—1,000 times stronger”—than Resveratrol, says Pappas.

“The speed of science is picking up in this area exponentially and the implications are staggering.  Can you imagine delaying diseases in people?  They have had good results with  cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes and all the major diseases affected by this. When we started on this I was…saying oh my god!”

The movie shows us the biotech lab Sirtrus—founded by Dr Sinclair and fellow scientist. Christoph Westphal, which was doing a lot of testing in both mice and humans—was bought for $720 million (E450 million) by Glaxosmithkline.

“Hundreds of labs around the world are now working on this—it’s the hottest area in molecular biology around the world.”

The paradigm shift is that ageing and death are not the absolutes we once thought they were so where does it lead us?

Pappas speaks to all those involved, as well as the other leading figures in the field, including Aubrey de Grey from Cambridge—a theoretician once considered a lone gull of eccentricity—who now finds his ideas about people living for a 1000 years or even forever gaining respectability because of the speed of scientific advancement.

Long term, the effects of such a substance on populations worldwide is almost inconceivable, though the drug is not cheap—in the proper, pure form, it costs E135 to E205 a month per person for the high levels sufficient to fight off disease.

And, given the long history of elixirs and snake-oil that promised eternal youth and perfect health, scientists will be cautious in how they proceed and slow to make claims for its potential.

However, as Pappas points out, once something can make a lot of money for somebody and there are big corporations involved, who knows what will happen?

“What we do know is that science is stunning and it looks like humanity does not know what is about to hit—it could be that we are on the cusp of something that is utterly extraordinary”.

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