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Change of Plans, Ponce de Leon

This startup’s prize is health, not youth.
January 1, 2005

Forget the fountain of youth. Although a bevy of recent scientific papers have described how to extend lab animals’ life spans, the way to make money off their findings is not with drugs that prevent aging, but with ones that prevent the diseases of aging. At least that’s what the founders of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals think. Spun out of Harvard University about six months ago, the company aims to translate antiaging research into medicines for diabetes.

For decades, researchers have known that limiting lab animals’ calorie intake not only extends their lives but also prevents diabetes and other age-related ailments. Recent studies suggest that a boost in an enzyme called SIRT1 may be the explanation. Now, Sirtris cofounder and Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair says he and his colleagues have found evidence that SIRT1 is involved in glucose metabolism. Sinclair believes that a drug that activates the SIRT1 enzyme could reverse the problem that underlies type 2 diabetes: cells’ inability to absorb glucose.

At press time, Sinclair had yet to publish any papers on the SIRT1-glucose metabolism link, but that hadn’t deterred venture capitalists eager to cash in on the $5 billion U.S. market for type 2 diabetes drugs. Four venture capital firms had invested $5 million in Sirtris. The startup hopes that within a year or two, it will sign a deal with a major pharmaceutical company that can help it move its drug candidates into human testing. Sinclair’s lab already has a bank of molecules that activate SIRT1 and related enzymes.

Sinclair’s chief academic competitor is MIT’s Lenny Guarente, his former boss and the father of antiaging biology. It’s no surprise, then, that their respective companies are going head to head as well. In 1999, Guarente cofounded Cambridge, MA-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals. Like Sirtris, Elixir has diabetes and other metabolic diseases in its sights. Sirtris’s CEO, Christoph Westphal, a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners, says it isn’t Elixir that worries him. “Both Sirtris and Elixir should be worried about the big pharmaceutical companies,” he says. Drugmakers’ well-endowed diabetes programs have already advanced a few new drug candidates into late-stage human trials, and more are surely on the way.

Of course, neither startup can guarantee that antiaging science will prove a font of health. Targeting SIRT1 is promising, says Mary Elizabeth Patti of Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center, but “there’s never been a wonder drug” for diabetes. Patti still recommends eating less and exercising more until we realize the dream of a drug that does it for us.

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