Lenny Guarente has spent much of the last two decades patiently chipping away at the genetic and biochemical underpinnings of the aging process, an area of research often plagued by extreme hyperbole and extravagant claims.
The MIT biologist is particularly focused on one tantalizing clue: for about 70 years, researchers have known that rats tend to live longer when fed a diet that is adequate in nutrition but very low in calories. While biologists are still unsure whether severe calorie restriction will have the same antiaging effect on humans, Guarente believes he and his fellow researchers have found the genes and a mechanism responsible for delaying the aging process – at least in lower organisms.
Technology Review: If all goes well with antiaging research, what might be possible in five to 10 years?
Leonard Guarente: I hope in 10 years that we are way down the road of drug discovery in finding compounds that will deliver at least some of the benefits of calorie restriction. And I think SIR2 is going to be one of the important targets that we want to go after with drugs.
TR: That’s a gene you have identified as being involved in aging, isn’t it?
LG: We definitely think it is involved in the aging process. In particular, it seems to be involved in sensing caloric intake and asserting effects on cells to adjust life span. We think calorie restriction is a tremendous opportunity for us to intervene pharmacologically and have a positive impact on human health.
TR: So people won’t be going on a special diet to get the effects of calorie restriction, they’ll take a drug?
LG: I think so, because the amount of calories you would be taking in to get the benefits is rather a severe diet, about 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day. And most people who have tried this diet find it unpleasant. It makes them cold, it makes them hungry, they’re irritable, and I think compliance would be very difficult. So, the idea is to understand what this diet does in an effort to develop drugs that would hit at least some of the targets and deliver at least some of the benefits.
TR: You’re talking about treating specific diseases, not the aging process.
LG: The big idea here is that there is a close connection between aging itself and diseases of aging. If one had a favorable impact on the underlying aging process, diseases of aging would also be forestalled. And those diseases would include cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases – really major diseases.