[Updated and clarified. 8/12/10, 7:25 pm Eastern time. See below.] Cambridge, MA-based Sirtris Pharmaceuticals made international headlines over the past few years for developing drugs based on the anti-aging effects of the red wine chemical resveratrol. Now that the company has been part of London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline for more than two years, former Sirtris executives have begun selling their own resveratrol supplements online through their Boston nonprofit, the Healthy Lifespan Institute, Xconomy has learned.
Michelle Dipp, a Sirtris-turned-Glaxo executive, confirmed that the nonprofit that she and former Sirtris CEO Christoph Westphal co-founded last year has started online sales of resveratrol. Dipp leads the effort on the off hours when she isn’t doing her main job as senior vice president of Glaxo’s Center of Excellence for External Drug Discovery.
While the group is charging $540 for a one-year supply of resveratrol, Dipp says that the nonprofit is selling the supplements for cost and is not profiting from the sales. The revenues are covering the manufacturing, distribution, and other functions, all of which have been outsourced, she says.
The nonprofit’s supplements are made the same way as the formulation of resveratrol that Sirtris initially developed as a drug called SRT501 for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other diseases, Dipp says. While the chemical formula for the supplement is the same as the drug, the group’s resveratrol supplements are being offered as just that: dietary supplements, not drugs for specific diseases. That means the group can sell resveratrol just like any other dietary supplements without doing FDA-sanctioned clinical trials to get permission to begin sales. (Editor’s note: Though the nonprofit’s supplements are made in the same synthetic process as SRT501, the group says that the drug was tested in liquid form in capsules of 5 grams and the supplements are provided in powder form in 250-milligram capsules.)
Numerous outfits have been selling resveratrol supplements for years. Some were even caught illegally using the likenesses of Sirtris founders David Sinclair, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and Westphal, who now heads Glaxo’s venture firm, SR One. Dipp—who formed the Healthy Lifespan Institute with Westphal and others last year—says that their group is the only one she knows of that manufactures resveratrol in a completely synthetic process with the same high standards for sterilization and purity that govern pharmaceutical production.
To be clear, this resveratrol operation is a volunteer effort that Dipp and Westphal do on the side. Both are still employees of Glaxo, and they have also started a Boston venture firm called Longwood Founders Fund with fellow Sirtris co-founder Rich Aldrich.
“Our main business is bringing new drugs to patients through our work at Longwood and (Glaxo),” says Dipp, who is president of the Healthy Lifespan Institute. “But there was so much demand for (resveratrol).”
When CBS featured Sirtris and its potential anti-aging technology on 60 Minutes in January 2009, there was a surge in the number of people who wanted to score some resveratrol, Dipp says. (Apparently, it didn’t matter to people that resveratrol’s potential to prolong life has not been proven in human studies.) Sirtris, which Dipp says got flooded with requests for the chemical, wasn’t in a position to provide it to consumers because of its mission is to develop drugs for serious diseases.
Resveratrol is believed to activate anti-aging genes that boost metabolic functions in cells. It’s been said that the chemical’s impact on cells mimics the effects of dieting. The chemical has shown that it can slow the aging process in mice on a high-fat diet, but studies of whether such results can be replicated in humans have not been done. At Sirtris, researchers gathered evidence in an early clinical trial that the firm’s resveratrol helped reduce blood sugar levels in patients with Type 2 diabetes, Dipp says. (Glaxo has since scrapped development of resveratrol for Type 2 diabetes, in favor of a vastly more potent pill that is designed to improve metabolic functions in such patients.)
Indeed, we don’t know what resveratrol’s long-term health effects are on humans. In May, Glaxo halted a clinical study of Sirtris’s formulation of resveratrol for multiple myeloma, after a form of kidney damage was found five of 24 patients in the trial, according to a Bloomberg News story. Despite questions about the chemical, Harvard’s Sinclair and Westphal take it as a dietary supplement. Dipp says she doesn’t take resveratrol for personal health reasons.
In fact, the Healthy Lifespan Institute uses some acrobatic rhetoric in its public communications. The nonprofit sells resveratrol supplements while saying it doesn’t explicitly endorse using it. That’s different from the late-night TV informercial crowd, which is more inclined to exaggerate what the supplement can do in order to boost sales.
“We cannot endorse it, so that’s why we’re careful to say that we provide it,” Dipp says. “We try to provide (people) with all the information that’s available for them to make a decision. We know that other people are making it and people are taking it. The hope is for those people who choose to take resveratrol, what we’re doing is providing a very high-quality, sterile, form of it. And we believe it’s safer because we know what’s in it.”
The nonprofit’s website has a link to Sinclair’s site called ResForum.org, where people can download an e-book he and Harvard pathologist Mark Boguski co-wrote to provide scientific facts about the chemical.
An ultimate goal of the nonprofit is to study the effects of resveratrol and other non-pharmaceutical interventions on the aging process, Westphal told me last September. Yet the group has not begun any human studies of resveratrol, and Dipp says that it would need to raise millions of dollars to do that work.
With the help of the nonprofit, perhaps someday we’ll have definitive proof that resveratrol really does prolong lives. For now, however, people have to take the supplements at their own risk.
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