Business & Tech

INNOVATION ECONOMY

Search for a youth medicine never grows old

Eric Marcotulli is CEO of the health supplements startup Elysium Health. Dan Alminana is chief operating officer. Lenny Guarente is chief scientist and a professor of chemistry at MIT.
Elysium Health
Eric Marcotulli is CEO of the health supplements startup Elysium Health. Dan Alminana is chief operating officer. Lenny Guarente is chief scientist and a professor at MIT.

Juan Ponce de Leon, historians now realize, never spent a dime or a day searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth as part of his 16th-century peregrinations.

But here in the Boston area, nearly $1 billion has been spent since the start of the 21st century on the hunt for ways to extend the human lifespan and delay decrepitude. The latest startup company to attract backing, Elysium Health, raised $20 million earlier this month from General Catalyst Partners, a venture capital firm based in Cambridge, and billionaire Gerald Chan of Morningside Partners. Perhaps you’ve seen Elysium’s ads in your Facebook feed, promising an antiaging breakthrough based on MIT research and featuring the mug of biology professor Leonard Guarente.

Despite the influx of capital and the very smart researchers involved, we’re still wandering in the wilderness. But there’s a powerful allure to a pill that might give you a few extra years, or as the insiders like to say, “improve your healthspan,” enabling you to avoid hospitals and doctors’ offices as much as possible in your last decade or two.

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The first generation of longevity companies locally, Elixir Pharmaceuticals and Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, focused on certain genes that seemed — in animals like worms and mice — to delay aging, and the onset of age-related diseases like diabetes or cancer. One of the genes, studied in fruit flies, was dubbed “indy.” That stood for “I’m not dead yet.”

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Sirtris went public in 2007, then was acquired by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline in 2008 for an eye-popping $720 million, even though it still didn’t have a product on the market. (You might have learned about Sirtris in 2009, when the company appeared on “60 Minutes,” highlighting its work with a chemical called resveratrol to activate a particular gene. Resveratrol is present in grapes — and also red wine.) Glaxo shuttered Sirtris’ Cambridge office and eventually gave up on much of its research — though the company says it is still investigating one drug candidate from Sirtris that might prove useful in treating inflammatory diseases. Elixir raised about $100 million from private investors and tried unsuccessfully to pull off an initial public offering in 2007, but today the company no longer exists.

The founder of Elysium, former venture capitalist Eric Marcotulli, was reading a case study about Sirtris while earning his MBA at Harvard Business School. “I was so fascinated by the research,” he says. “My first thought when reading the case was, ‘I want this product, and gee, I’d really like to have this for my parents.’ ” He connected with Guarente, and they eventually formed a new company in 2014. Unlike Sirtris or Elixir, though, this venture would focus on identifying naturally occurring compounds that could be sold without approval from the Food and Drug Administration. One of them is a newly discovered form of Vitamin B3 called nicotinamide riboside; the other is pterostilbene, an antioxidant found in blueberries that is chemically similar to resveratrol but “absorbed better and very stable,” Guarente says. Elysium sells a monthly supply of pills on its website for $50, advertising only that they “support the long-term health of your cells.”

The company is conducting clinical trials — one of which showed that its recommended dosage is safe in humans, and also that it raises the level of a coenzyme called NAD, which seems to have a rejuvenating effect in mice. But the benefits of a higher NAD level in humans are as yet unproven. Other companies also market supplements similar to Elysium’s, using ingredients from the same supplier, California-based ChromaDex Inc.

Marcotulli says Elysium, headquartered in New York, also is developing products focused on supporting brain health, as well as keeping muscles, bones, and joints in tip-top shape. Everything will have “rigorous scientific backing and human data,” he says.

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A veteran of Sirtris, former chief executive George Vlasuk, is now running another Cambridge startup called Navitor Pharmaceuticals, which has raised about $56 million since its founding in 2014. The company is trying to commercialize research done in Cambridge at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research into a mechanism that controls the way proteins are made inside cells. “We don’t focus on longevity,” Vlasuk says, “but we’re trying to find out if there are common mechanisms that drive chronic diseases of aging, and if there are, can they be targeted with drugs to prevent or treat those diseases?”

“I think it’s logical,” Vlasuk continues, “to conclude that if you prevent or suppress certain chronic diseases, like chronic inflammation, or potentially cancer and diabetes, then you may have an increase in overall longevity. But that’s not the goal, and I don’t think that’s what legitimate science is focusing on.”

Unlike Elysium, Navitor plans to follow the more traditional path of designing its own molecules and shepherding them through human trials to earn FDA approval.

Guarente is one of the few people who has now been affiliated with three different antiaging startups in Boston: before Elysium, he was a scientific adviser to Sirtris, and prior to that, he was a scientific founder of Elixir. He also wrote an autobiography, “Ageless Quest: One Scientist’s Search for the Genes that Prolong Youth.”

Before we wrapped up our interview in his journal-lined office, I asked him if he was a user of Elysium’s Basis product — even though he is a spry 64-year-old. He said he’d been taking the supplement for two years. Prior to that, he was popping daily doses of resveratrol. “I bought a 10-year supply from Christoph [Westphal],” the cofounder and former chief executive of Sirtris, who for a brief moment had a side business selling resveratrol supplements online.

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But new research eventually persuaded Guarente that the resveratrol wasn’t doing much in otherwise healthy adults. So he stashed the boxes of pills in his basement.

For Elysium and its Basis supplement, the next step, he says, is to gather more data from human trials “to prove it would make you healthier, and be able to say that 10 years from now, you will be healthier.”

Vlasuk points out that “the biology of this is complex. It’s going to be a longer game than many people thought.”

Just try to hang on until they figure it out.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of ChromaDex Inc.