‘Pill to reverse ageing in 30 years? Why not’, says Harvard professor Dr David Sinclair
There is no reason to accept ageing as inevitable, Harvard professor Dr David Sinclair said on Friday, adding that if a pill or a vaccine is not developed in the next 30 years to fight ageing, “something must have gone terribly wrong”.
Dr Sinclair, co-director of the Paul F Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School, and his team recently turned back the clock on aged eye cells in the retina to reverse vision loss in elderly mice.
“Ageing is going to happen… We are not going to live forever… But can we try to live another 5 or 10 or 20 years longer, healthily? Absolutely... There is no law that says that we couldn’t live longer,” he said at the 18th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.
Dr Sinclair, best known for his work on understanding why humans age and how to slow its effects, said it was important to declare ageing as a disease so that governments change laws to treat it with medicines and more funds are accessible for scientific work.
“If it [a pill or a vaccine to reverse ageing] doesn’t happen in the next 30 years, something must have gone terribly wrong,” he said, adding that it was possible a medicine against ageing was already among us. “We just need to have more evidence that they actually work the way we are hoping,” the Harvard professor, who has featured in TIME magazine’s list of the ‘100 most influential people in the world’, said.
His research has been primarily focused on sirtuins, a group of proteins that appear to be key in regulating the ageing process. In 1999, he was recruited to the Harvard Medical School, where he has been teaching ageing biology and translational medicine for ageing.
Dr Sinclair also shared tips on how to slow the process of ageing: don’t eat three regular meals; exercise; lift some weights; use biomarker feedback; sleep well and reduce stress; and eat plants that have been stressed.
“You may not want to skip breakfast, you may want to skip lunch or dinner... it’s different for every individual. If you are young, this is probably not for you,” he said, adding that middle-aged people whose metabolism has slowed down should consider skipping meals strategically.
On the question of whether a vegetarian diet was better or a non-vegetarian regimen, he said: “You do want your diet to look like what a rabbit might eat more than a lion.”
According to a paper published in Nature, Dr Sinclair and his team used an adeno-associated virus as a vehicle to deliver into the retinas of mice three youth-restoring genes that are normally switched on during embryonic development. The three genes, together with a fourth one that was not used in this work, are collectively known as Yamanaka factors. This promoted nerve regeneration following optic-nerve injury in mice with damaged optic nerves, reversed vision loss in animals with a condition mimicking human glaucoma, and reversed vision loss in ageing animals without glaucoma.
Dr Sinclair said on Friday: “We are trying to understand can we compress the last few years of life that are sick into a very short period... [The goal] is really not to keep us in nursing homes and being sick for longer. We are not extending old age, we are doing the opposite. Our goal is to extend youthfulness so that we can perhaps live to 90 or 100 and towards the very end, still be productive members of society playing whatever sport you want with your grandkids or great grandkids.”
He added: “Often, we think that we have reached our maximum life span as a society... that is not true... Over the 20th Century and continuing to today, there is a very linear and predictable increase in human longevity. Every time [people] have said that we have reached the maximum, we blow through that glass ceiling and we keep adding years to life. But they are not all healthy years.”
The expert also gave more insights on mortality as a route to tackling ageing. “We tend not to die as much as we used to from cardiac reasons, but the brain still ages at the normal rate and we don’t do much about it… Our approach is to treat the entire body with medicines and lifestyles that will keep every part of the body healthier and more youthful,” the expert added. “In my scientific opinion, around the age of 30, ageing starts to kick in.”
On being asked about the nature of supplements people should take in the quest to slow ageing, the he said: “Go with a company that has a good reputation… Go for the very pure molecules.” He added that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, appeared to show benefits in terms of anti-ageing properties. He, however, said that right meals and exercise seem to be the best bet against ageing at this point.
The proof-of-concept study published in Nature demonstrates the epigenetic reprogramming of complex tissues, such as the nerve cells of the eye, to a younger age when they can repair and replace tissue damaged from age-related conditions and diseases. Elaborating on the study in mice, Dr Sinclair said that most of our longevity is determined by our epigenome and not by our DNA.
While the DNA holds instructions for building proteins, epigenome comprises all of chemicals that are added to one’s DNA to regulate the activity.