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 contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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