Australian scientist David Sinclair is co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Molecular Biology of Ageing and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. His groundbreaking research has led to a discovery that once existed only in the realm of science fiction – a little pill that can slow the ageing process and reverse some of the least desirable aspects of getting older.
Sinclair’s interest in anti-ageing research stems from an early fear of death. During his PHD, he met a scientist who was beginning to study ageing using yeast cells from baking and brewing. “I thought that was smart,” says Sinclair. “Ageing is complicated so why would we start with humans? We should start with something simple.”
His approach paid off. In 2003, Sinclair discovered that a molecule in red wine called resveratrol could turn on the body’s defenses against disease and control the speed at which we age. “It’s surprising how many diseases in animals that resveratrol can treat or prevent,” he says. “The list includes diabetes, heart disease, bone loss, Alzheimer’s and cancer.”
Sinclair’s research has led to work on molecules that are significantly more effective than resveratrol. “Exercise and dieting turns on anti-ageing genes and we found that we could use molecules, like resveratrol and new ones, which we call NAD boosters, to turn on these genes in the absence of exercise and dieting. What they gave us was a mouse that could run twice as far on a treadmill without ever having trained before and a mouse that was resistant to the effects of obesity even though they were eating a high-fat or Western diet. You get a lifespan extension along with that.”
Although human studies will not begin for another year or two, Sinclair, who was listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2014, has been experimenting on himself for more than a decade. His wife, father and Harvard co-workers soon joined him in swallowing the little pill that may help to turn back time.
“We’re all on this long-term experiment to see how we do. Based on studies we’ve done, you wouldn’t expect to find anything dramatic until you get older,” says Sinclair. “My father has stayed healthy. Despite being 75 he’s fitter than I am.”