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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Turning Back Time

After centuries of searching, the Fountain of Youth may have been discovered at last by a Harvard researcher.

Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth and wound up discovering Florida, ironically the place where older people often spend their final years. The human race has never quit hoping for an elixir that would turn back the clock. It’s possible that one scientist is finally getting close.

Regenerating Youthful Tissue

David Sinclair, professor in the Department of Genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School, is the senior author of a recent study which reprogrammed the expression of a trio of genes to induce mature nerve cells in mouse eyes to revert to a youthful state. The treatment not only reversed glaucoma in the animals, but also reversed age-related sight loss in elderly rodents. Further studies will be needed to prove the concept, but there is a possibility the therapy could be used to repair age-related damage and diseases in other organs, including those of humans.

“Our study demonstrates that it's possible to safely reverse the age of complex tissues such as the retina and restore its youthful biological function,” Sinclair said. If affirmed through further studies, these findings could be transformative for the care of age-related vision diseases like glaucoma and to the fields of biology and medical therapeutics for disease at large.”

Potential to Combat Many Diseases

In essence, Sinclair is working to reverse genetic changes, specifically DNA methylation and demethylation, that are the hallmarks of aging. Methylation can be seen on cells as a sort of crust, according to Sinclair, and scientists can tell how old you are biologically within a few years by observing the degree of methylation on your cells. 

The biggest risk factor for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia and many other ailments is aging. Medicine is generally focused on treating each disease separately; but Sinclair hypothesizes that by reversing the effects of aging, all of the diseases could be reduced or eliminated. Others agree.

“We are on the verge of a public health breakthrough of the kind we have never seen before,” says S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health who studies demographics and aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It is not trivial. This is bigtime.”

Sinclair is the author of Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To, which took just over a week to reach number 11 on the New York Times bestseller list last September. He has also started 17 companies, had countless discoveries documented in prestigious scientific journals and has been awarded a plethora of scientific honors and prizes. 


The smooth-talking native Australian is also a controversial figure. “He’s a superb scientist, as well as a superb salesman,” says his friend Steven Austad, a professor of biology who studies aging at the University of Alabama. “You talk to him about science and you won’t find many more knowledgeable, incisive experimentalists as David. And then you can listen to the stuff he says on TV and be like, What the hell is he talking about? ”

Even fellow scientists have their doubts. “He does do research and he gets it published in peer-reviewed journals, and if he just did that, it’d be fine,” says a Harvard Medical School professor who asked to remain anonymous. “But then he speaks out about how he makes himself young and says stuff that would be embarrassing for any normal scientist to say.”

Sinclair claims to have turned back his own biological clock a full decade, from his true age 50 to a more youthful 40. To do this, he restricts calories and doesn’t eat until the afternoon, exercises, and takes a handful of pills, some of which are formulated based on his own research.

Many years ago, Sinclair published papers documenting groundbreaking discoveries on the life-prolonging (for yeast) properties of resveratrol, a component of red wine. His company, Sirtris, went public in 2007 then got bought out for an astounding $720 million by GlaxoSmithKline. Then the research got debunked by scientists at Pfizer. In response, Sinclair claimed the researchers “don’t know how to make a molecule right” and published more of his own research. In the end, GlaxoSmithKline shuttered Sirtris a mere five years after buying it.

When his book came out, some colleagues were offended by its title. “What is wrong with the guy that he is compelled to do this?” asks the unnamed Harvard Medical School professor. “Seen in the best possible way, he is totally convinced that he is the savior of mankind developing the fountain of youth. But you don’t have to hype to do that. Just let the facts play out.”

How Sinclair Stays Young

Whatever the results of his recent research, Sinclair maintains some practices that he believes help him stay young. He practices calorie restriction, rarely eats meat, and avoids sugar and carbohydrates. Weekends find him at the gym. He follows his workout with a hot sauna and then a plunge into a freezing cold pool — he says that temperature extremes ignite survival instincts in our cells. Sinclair takes vitamin D, vitamin K2, and aspirin. He also consumes resveratrol, NMN and metformin, a diabetes drug being studied for its anti-aging properties. 

The scientist is not a medical doctor and does not recommend that anyone follow his regimen. However, many people try. “I like David a lot. We’re very good friends. However, I don’t think that what he’s doing is right,” says Felipe Sierra, the director of the aging biology division at the National Institute of Aging. “I don’t think that people should try it on themselves. And if they do, they shouldn’t publicize it. Researchers do have a responsibility toward the public, and we should be careful about what we tell the public.”

The jury is out on Sinclair’s regime for youth. But he’s definitely someone to watch as the medical community continues to discover ways in which we may all one day be able to turn back time.