Christoph Westphal, the CEO of biotech firm Sirtris, says that he and several of his colleagues are forming a new nonprofit group in the Boston area called the Healthy Lifespan Institute. The institute is being formed to research non-pharmaceutical measures that people can take to live longer and healthier lives and to educate people about the aging process, Westphal tells Xconomy.
While Sirtris, a Cambridge, MA, subsidiary of drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, is developing drugs to treat diseases of aging such as Type 2 diabetes and cancer, the new nonprofit group will be focused on educating people about the aging process and conducting human clinical studies into whether such interventions as reducing caloric intake or taking supplements like resveratrol will prolong healthy living. While the plant-derived resveratrol could be considered a pharmaceutical, depending on how it’s defined, a key to the potential life-extending measures of interest to the institute is that they are not traditional FDA-regulated therapeutics. The institute, which is due to officially launch within six months, is expected to be a separate entity from Sirtris. Though the nonprofit group will certainly be tapping the expertise of people affiliated with Sirtris to advance knowledge of the human aging process.
The past decade or so has been rife with discoveries about the biological underpinnings of how cells and organisms age. For example, studies show that animals such as mice and monkeys on low-calorie diets live longer than animals that eat more. Other animal studies indicate that the red wine chemical resveratrol can mimic the effects of calorie restriction to prolong life. Sirtris’ leadership in this field prompted London-based Glaxo to acquire the startup for $720 million in June 2008. Yet the pharmaceutical industry is primarily focused on developing new drugs for diseases. Aging isn’t considered a disease. So there’s a large need for “rigorous controlled studies” that show the effects of non-FDA regulated measures such as calorie restriction and resveratrol in humans, according to Westphal.
“It’s a pretty straightforward mission statement: to increase healthy lifespan,” Westphal said. “I think there are few people who would disagree with that, and I think it’s a very worthy mission.”
Westphal believes it will cost tens of millions of dollars to fund the human clinical studies that the institute plans to conduct, yet he says that the focus of the nonprofit effort right now is to bring together leaders in the science of aging. The other people involved in the Healthy Lifespan Institute include David Sinclair—the Harvard Medical School professor who co-founded Sirtris with Westphal and others—MIT biology professor and Sirtris scientific adviser Leonard Guarente, Glaxo executive Michelle Dipp, and former Sirtris scientist Peter Elliott.
Sinclair is credited with discovering that resveratrol activates the production of a sirtuin enzyme that improves metabolic function in cells and increases lifespan in lab organisms. Sirtris was founded around Sinclair’s discovery, and the firm has advanced its own proprietary chemicals for activating sirtuins to treat Type 2 diabetes and other diseases. Sinclair did his postdoctoral research in the MIT lab of Guarente, who is also involved in the institute and is considered an expert in the science of aging. Dipp, a former Sirtris executive, still works closely with the startup as vice president and head of the Center of Excellence in External Drug Discovery for Glaxo. Elliott was head of R&D at Sirtris, and he previously played a key role in the development of Millennium’s multiple myeloma drug bortezomib (Velcade).
Westphal made mention of the institute during the Aging & Healthy Lifespan Conference at Harvard Medical School yesterday. He told me that many of the presenters at the conference will be involved in the effort, and he asserts that he is open to many new ideas about how to increase healthy life aside from calorie restriction and taking resveratrol. One of the speakers at the conference was Paul McGlothin, the vice president of research at the Calorie Restriction Society International, which is pursuing human data of how calorie restriction impacts human health. (Though I’m not sure whether the CR Society will be involved in the new nonprofit group.) The Healthy Lifespan Institute hasn’t yet found an office, but the plan is to find one in Boston and begin operations with a lean staff of people.
“I’m a scientist,” said Westphal, who earned his MD and PhD at Harvard Medical School before going into business. “I want to do the studies to say yes we can or no we can’t extend healthy lifespan.”
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