David Sinclair is very good at persuading people. The catch, says a longtime colleague and scientific rival, is that he is sometimes overly optimistic about his results. “David is brilliant, but sometimes he is too passionate and impatient for a scientist,” says another colleague. “So far, he is fortunate that his claims have turned out to be mostly true.”
Sinclair’s basic claim is simple, if seemingly improbable: he has found an elixir of youth. In his Australian drawl, the 38-year-old Harvard University professor of pathology explains how he discovered that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, extends life span in mice by up to 24 percent and in other animals, including flies and worms, by as much as 59 percent. Sinclair hopes that resveratrol will bump up the life span of people, too. “The system at work in the mice and other organisms is evolutionarily very old, so I suspect that what works in mice will work in humans,” he says.
Sinclair thinks resveratrol works by activating SIRT1, a gene that many scientists believe plays a fundamental role in regulating life span in animals. Biologists have found that increasing the expression of SIRT1 slows aging and fends off maladies associated with growing old, including cancer and heart disease. If Sinclair is right, and resveratrol can activate SIRT1–and if the gene does in fact help control aging–he has found something truly remarkable.
The scientific uncertainty surrounding Sinclair’s claims hasn’t stopped him from raising millions of dollars. In 2004 it took him a single lunch meeting to persuade California philanthropist Paul Glenn to put up $5 million for a new Harvard institute on aging, of which Sinclair is now a director. Sinclair also cofounded Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to develop drugs based on resveratrol and helped persuade an A-list of venture investors to pony up $103 million in private funding. In late May, the company made an initial public offering that netted $62 million more. The stock price quickly rose 20 percent, providing Sinclair, who holds less than 1 percent of the shares, with a pleasant (if, for now, notional) addition to his academic salary–and possibly a big payday should the company ever produce a fountain-of-youth pill. “I grew up middle class in Sydney,” he says, flashing a characteristically shy though confident smile. “As an academic, I never expected to be wealthy, so any extra is unexpected, although [it] feels pretty good.”
Later, Sinclair winces when I mention that some colleagues describe him as a good salesman. “Scientists don’t like to be called salesmen,” he says. “It’s an insult.” Still, he says, “I believe in my work and advocate for my conclusions.” One thing is certain: Sinclair’s persuasiveness gives him an edge over his rivals in a field where a good deal of money and glory is at stake–not to mention potential impact on the future of medicine.
Sinclair says his bravado and drive come from his grandmother Vera, who fled to Australia in the wake of the failed 1956 revolution in her native Hungary. Her son, David’s father, changed the family name from Szigeti. “My grandmother is the black-sheep rebel of the family,” he says. “She gave birth to my dad at age 15 in 1939–imagine the scandal then–and has lived with natives in New Guinea and eaten human flesh, among other things. She once got in trouble with the police for being the first person to wear a bikini on a Sydney beach. She’s a ’60s bohemian who helped raise me and taught me how to think differently and to question dogma.”
A slight man with a mischievous smile, Sinclair grew up in St. Ives, near Sydney, where as a boy he liked to make bombs from chlorine or gunpowder to blow things up. “It was rebellious and dangerous,” he says. “That was the thrill. I think I was bored.” When he was seven years old, he came up with a list of 10 ways to change the world, and one was to create inventions to make money. Later, he took up windsurfing and racing around in cars. He got so many speeding tickets that he once had his license confiscated. “He was always quite cheeky and could get under your skin if he knew you well enough,” says Mark Sumich, his best friend growing up.