Sirtris Returns to Its “Roots” in Crop Deal with Bayer

News arriving in my inbox from Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: SIRT) this morning caused a double-take: the company known for researching drugs that may treat diabetes and cancer by mimicking the effects of calorie restriction is licensing a portion of its technology to Bayer CropScience AG, the German agricultural biotech giant. For a moment, I wondered how the heck a startup focused on improving human health and lifespan could have any insights into plants.

Then I remembered the red wine connection. Sirtris’s drug pipeline is stocked with a number of different molecules that boost cells’ production of lifespan-extending “sirtuin” proteins (hence the company’s name), and the granddady of these molecules—called resveratrol—was originally isolated from plants, most famously from the grapes used to make red wine. Researchers learned early on that resveratrol is found in greater concentrations in plants that are under stress from fungal infections, suggesting that it’s one of the molecules that provoke cellular defenses such as slowed aging and delayed cell death in plants. It was only recently that researchers began to observe such effects in mammals. So in a way, agricultural applications of sirtuin science actually represent a return to the field’s roots. So to speak.

Which leads back to Sirtris’s announcement. The company said it’s granting Bayer CropScience the exclusive, worldwide rights to agricultural applications of “a certain Sirtris technology that contributes to cellular life span extension and stress resistance.” Bayer intends to pursue the technology as one possible way of increasing crop yields and stress resistance in crops such as canola, cotton, rice, and corn.

“The object of Bayer CropScience’s global research activities is to develop a new generation of stress-tolerant, high-yielding varieties,” says Utz Klages, a Bayer CropScience spokesperson whom I reached in Monheim, Germany. “These crops have to be protected against a wide variety of abiotic and biotic stress factors. As Sirtris is also working in this field, it makes the agreement very attractive for Bayer CropScience.”

But exactly what technologies Sirtris is licensing to Bayer remains a little vague. Sirtris’s U.S. and international patents are very broad, covering the general idea of sirtuin enhancement in human, animal, and plant cells as well as a range of potential applications for same. So you might think that the “certain Sirtris technology” referred to in the announcement is a gene or chemical aimed at boosting sirtuin production in crop plants.

That’s what I thought, anyway. But interestingly, John Lacey, Sirtris’s associate director of corporate communications, says the Bayer agreement is not a license for the company to develop methods that would directly modulate the plant equivalents of sirtuin-encoding genes. “It’s a license that involves the fluctuation of the pathway in plants that influences sirtuin members, but it’s not a license to specific sirtuins,” Lacey says. In theory, Sirtris is still free to license agricultural applications of direct sirtuin modulation to another company. But “those discussion haven’t taken place,” says Lacey.

I tried to pin down Klages on which aspect of Sirtris’s technology seems most promising to crop scientists, but he wouldn’t take the bait. He did say, however, that Sirtris’s technology is just one of many approaches Bayer is testing to the challenge of making crops more adaptable to changing climate conditions. “This is the beginning of a medium-term research agreement that might lead to possible new varieties as early as 2015; it’s too early to confirm the details at the moment,” Klages says. “Let’s see how it works and which technology will be the best to get these varieties.”

Sirtris said in the announcement that it will receive “an initial up-front and future success bound milestone payments” in return for the license. Neither company would discuss the amounts or dates of these payments.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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12 responses to “Sirtris Returns to Its “Roots” in Crop Deal with Bayer”

  1. Dr. James Harding says:

    As I see it the dilemma for Sirtris is that the products they are developing already exist in effective natural, inexpensive form. Given, his synthetic analogs may be more potent or targeted against specific conditions such as diabetes however biotivia transmax, the natural form of concentrated resveratrol, is available now and has been shown in peer reviewed studies to be safe and effective. Synthetic analogs historically have been shown to be somewhat unpredictable in effect and safety. Why not simply stick with the natural form?

  2. Dr, Bernard Howlings says:

    I see Sirtris as a company on the leading edge of drug development in the sirtuin space. The problem with natural supplements, such biotivia transmax is that they are not bioavailable and offer no proven benefits. Natural supplements such as biotivia transmax make many false claims and are a waste of money.

  3. Alexander Mark says:

    Dr. Harding. Aside from any benefit that might be derived via a new formulation (and it could be substantial)there is the simple idea that you cannot make money off natural substances because you cannot market them. It seems to be a questionable stance to not look into potential benefits of synthetic varieties. Until we know we are guessing.

    Dr. Howlings. I ingest considrable amounts of the root of a plant that contains notable amounts of resvrtrol. Within 30 minutes the feeling being more robust becomes noticable. the loss of excess body fat has not hurt either. I realize that I might suffer unknown negative side effects but after reviewing the literature I decided that the risk to reward ratio was one I will live with. Since people in my family tend to die on the left side of the bell curve (the joke is I am saving for my wife’s retirement) I feel that it is hopefully a good effort. I am inclined to simply point out that there might be natural forms of the substance that are bioavailable. I am not endorsing the product you mentioned. i certainly understand that my experiance should be regarded as anecdotal.

  4. Dr. George says:

    “Biotivia Transmax” is just a trade name for one particular Resveratrol supplement. Resveratrol is rapidly becoming a commodity supplement, and there are a number of quality providers. “Dr. Harding” is a Biotivia sockpuppet who spams every website he can find, attempting to implant this false message that “biotivia transmax” is somehow the accepted nomenclature for “natural resveratrol”.

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Seeing all the outlandish comments from self-styled “Doctors” that crop up (pun not originally intended) every time we publish a story about Sirtris, I can understand why the company is so hyper-cautious about the potential nutraceutical uses of sirtuin-inducing compounds. What a minefield of conflicting claims and snake-oil salesmen.

  6. I have to say,

    I really like this partnership. Who knows, it may help provide a competitor to Monsanto down the line. (Which in my opinion is badly needed.)

  7. James Betz says:

    Transmax is a cheaply produced resveratrol supplement that is purchased from shady sources in China that we never bothered to test for purity or heavy metals.

    Fortunately, my company makes its money riding on media hype and consumer ignorance which lets me mark up my cheap product for a hefty profit.

    I can then in turn pay people to scour the internet to pump my product and bash competitors and real parmacutical companies such as Sitris where ever i find a blog or forum.

  8. James Betz says:

    The above was a joke post. Please regard it as such.

    I have no idea if Biotivia is a good product or not. The only thing I can tell you is that the guy finds every Sitris or Resveratrol forum/blog that he possibly can find and attempts to market his product while bashing others.

    Its sad really.

  9. Mark Yennik says:

    Does the French paradox apply to smoking? I’d appreciate a pill that lets me smoke, drink, and stuff my face with croissants while losing weight and living to 150. Every one of those French bastards skarfs down cigarettes while guzzling red wine, oggling women, avoiding work and trashing America. Talk about the life!

  10. ruth rosen says:

    I am interested to know if resveratrol would be helpful in controlling conditions such as osteo arthritis. Is a natural form available for safe use or not. the letters were confusing. if we all live to more than 100 who will support us? will retirement age be moved up to 90? how will the youth find employment and what if men sire children into their 90’s? I think there a lot of social implication to these improvements

  11. My research indicates that soy isoflavones, especially the diadzein metabolite S-equol is a potent Sirtuin 1 activator, potentially 1000 times more effective than resveratrol. Trouble is, only about 50-80% of the population are “equol” producers. So, you have to be healthy to be healthier. Isn’t that kind of like money?

  12. Ileana says:

    Ruth, our lifespan has steadily increased through the centuries, but this is an issue of reaching old age in better health rather than reaching a very old age. That’s what vampires are for!