Controlling aging with drugs is a remarkable idea, and some might say an outlandish one. But two Massachusetts scientists say they're enticingly close to making the idea a reality.
The brains behind the idea are Harvard Medical School scientist David Sinclair, 38, and millionaire investor Christoph Westphal, the 39-year-old CEO of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals.
They say they hope the research they're doing in Cambridge, Mass., the biotech hub of the universe, will revolutionize medicine.
"If we are right, these drugs will be enormously successful drugs and treat very important diseases," said Westphal.
Inside a nondescript building, the co-founders share a tiny office and a goofy sense of humor. But the company's goal is quite serious. They hope to develop drugs that will treat not just some but potentially all the diseases that come with old age -- diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, for example.
"I used to think it was probably 100 years in the future that we'd see these anti-aging drugs come around," said Sinclair, "but now I'm optimistic that we'll see these within the next, possibly within the next few years."
Sirtris was founded based on the science of David Sinclair. He was something of whiz-kid when he was recruited by Harvard Medical School and given his own lab devoted to research on aging. He still spends most of his time there, where he and his team do what he calls cutting-edge science.
Sinclair said from the moment he realized he was mortal, he was on a quest to do something about it. So after finishing his Ph.D. in his native Australia, he sold his car to buy a plane ticket to Massachusetts.
There, he began working in an MIT lab that was doing groundbreaking research on the genetics of aging.
"The simple fact that there are genes that control aging is really one of the most important discoveries in the last decade or more," Sinclair said. "But the details of what these genes actually do and how they do it, we're really just beginning to tap into that and the more we study, the more exciting it becomes."
Exciting, because he said the genes are activated by a red wine ingredient called resveratrol. Mice that received it in their study lived 30 percent longer than the mice that did not.
That finding made big headlines, and grabbed the attention of Christoph Westphal, who is now Sinclair's business partner.
Westphal is an M.D.-Ph.D., which he finished in almost-record time at Harvard. But he's made his name and his fortune as a venture capitalist, investing in edgy biotech companies. Westphal explained that his first meeting with Sinclair wasn't all red wine and roses.
"There was a little bit of a chess match at the beginning, where we were all trying to figure each other out," explained Westphal.
"He basically said, tell me all, or I'm going to walk out of here," said Sinclair. "And I realized pretty quickly that he was a guy that I wanted to tell things to because I thought he was somebody very special."
Special indeed. Originally from Germany, Westphal paid his way through medical school by performing as a concert cellist. He's also fluent in four languages.
So when the two paired up, it was something of a dream team. But they still needed backing.
"It's tens of millions of dollars to set up a company like Sirtris, and ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a drug," said Westphal.