Tech + Health

04.11.11

New Anti-Aging Pill Under Fire

A major new study claims the pricey supplement TA-65 may turn back the clock, all the way down to our DNA—but many scientists are brushing it off as snake oil. Thea Singer investigates.

In an era of seemingly magical technology, the notion that scientists could develop a pill that might slow the aging process doesn’t seem that far-fetched. After all, we can now perform face transplants. We can control machines with our minds. How far could we be from producing a treatment that rejuvenates our cells?

According to some researchers: We’re already there. For several years now, a handful of supplement and biotechnology companies claim to be hot on the trail of the miracle anti-aging formula humankind has long sought—and one product has already hit the market.

Made from a Chinese herb called Astragalus membranaceus, the “nutraceutical” is referred to by the equally futuristic and drab-sounding name of TA-65. And it claims to reverse the clock at a cellular level, all the way down to our DNA. The capsule ranges from $1,200 to $4,000 for a six-month supply, depending on the dose.

T.A. Sciences, a New York supplement company, manufactures the pill, and employees swear by it. “My immune system is younger, my eyesight is improved, the glucose and cholesterol levels in my blood have gone down, and I have increased cognitive function,” says Noel Patton, the 65-year-old founder and CEO of the company. He’s been taking it for four years.

The mainstream scientific community has, for the most part, viewed the supplement extremely skeptically. But a new study, backed up by a few scientific heavyweights, suggests that it may just work. The paper appears today in Aging Cell—though the journal was so eager to get the word out that it posted it online in late March, even before the acknowledgments were complete. My quest to investigate the study, however, led to a tangled web of believers and nonbelievers, and a raging controversy in the field of anti-aging research. Is T.A. Sciences marketing snake oil, or a ticket to prolonged youth?

To understand the paper’s implications, it helps to understand how TA-65 claims to work. The pill purports to restore our telomeres—the protective caps at the end of our DNA. Like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces, these caps, with time, illness, and stress, eventually wear down, leading to physical signs of aging. Scientists now view telomere length as an overall marker of biological aging. For example, babies have longer telomeres than adults—or, as Patton put it to me, in a kind of cognitive foot-in-mouth, “babies are always born young.”

My quest to investigate the study led to a tangled web of believers and nonbelievers—and a raging controversy in the field of anti-aging research.

Over the past few decades, the study of telomeres has risen to become a white-hot area of very legitimate scientific research. In 2009, a team of scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their breakthrough research into how telomeres work. Each time a cell divides, its telomeres get progressively shorter. When telomeres get so short that a cell can’t function, the cell either enters a resting state or dies.

But there’s a rejuvenative source for these worn-out cells. And that’s what T.A. Sciences aims to tap into—along with a California company called Geron Corp., a biotech dedicated to developing drugs to treat cancer and chronic degenerative diseases, which licensed TA-65 to Patton as a neutraceutical while keeping its own extract from the Chinese plant, called TAT2, to develop as a drug.

That life-giving source is the enzyme telomerase, which can actually lengthen telomeres. TA-65, the new study claims, is a “telomerase activator”—that is, it turns on telomerase in cells. Studies suggest that telomerase can also be activated naturally, through exercise, meditation, and other healthy lifestyle changes. But taking a pill is, of course, easier.

The lead author of the new paper is Maria Blasco, a prolific scientist who heads the Telomeres and Telomerase Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre. In the paper, Blasco reports that in genetically engineered mice, TA-65 rescued cells in jeopardy and improved health without increasing cancer incidence—a risk when cells can divide for longer periods of time.

In her study, a group of middle-aged and old mice ate food spiked with TA-65, while another group, the controls, ate plain food. (The age of the mice was intentional: TA-65 is marketed to people in their forties and up.) After three months, the scientists took blood samples, and measured the lengths of the telomeres of both groups. And sure enough: Mice that ate the TA-65 had a lower percentage of “very short telomeres.” They also displayed lower insulin levels, hair regrowth, and increased skin plumping. Blasco takes these changes as evidence that TA-65 works by “turning on” telomerase.

But the changes didn’t last, and overall longevity didn’t change. Nor did average telomere length of the treated mice—a measure that countless previous studies have deemed the more important measure, as it’s been proven to correlate with everything from reduced disease risk to lower mortality.

This last detail concerns Carol Greider, who, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, won the Nobel for the discovery of telomerase and how telomeres protect chromosomes. “There are a number of questions about the actual claims just in terms of: Is TA-65 really doing what they think it’s doing?” says Greider about the new paper.

She reflects, too, on an earlier study, in the journal Rejuvenation Research, showing similar results in humans (that is, T.A. Sciences customers) taking TA-65, along with vitamin supplements: The subjects’ mean telomere length did not increase, but their percentage of very short telomeres appeared to decrease. “I haven’t seen yet that they actually change telomere length, which is the clear real indicator,” adds Greider.

When I first contacted the Nobel laureate, she sent me a paper reporting that if taken in pill form, Geron’s drug-in-progress from the Chinese herb (TAT2) couldn’t even get to the body’s cells to make a difference. “This particular drug wouldn’t be one that you would give orally,” says Greider. “There would need to be some sort of chemical modification… for it to actually be useful.” No one connected to TA-65 will say if the supplement and TAT2 are chemically the same—“it’s a trade secret,” says Patton. But he assured me that results from studies on TAT2 are “definitely applicable” to TA-65.

Calvin Harley, a co-author on all three papers and chief scientific officer of Telome Health Inc., a new telomere-diagnostics company based in Northern California, acknowledges that concentrations of the active anti-aging ingredient may be low. But he says the pill can still activate telomerase in human cells in the lab—and the low potency helps to reduce safety concerns.

But Greider and other scientists point out both Blasco and Harley’s vested interest in the pill. Harley, 58, is a pioneer in telomere research, and a rigorous scientist. But he’s also an inventor of TA-65, and an adviser to both Geron and T.A. Sciences.

“I hate to say it, but I really think that money corrupts,” says noted cellular aging researcher Judith Campisi, pointing to the timing of the paper’s release—which happens to coincide with the launch of Blasco’s new company, Life Lengths, which measures people’s telomeres. Campisi, based at California’s Buck Institute for Research on Aging, has another concern as well: Telomerase doesn’t cause cancer, but cancer cells are telomerase-rich—it’s what enables them to divide indefinitely. Blasco’s new paper reports that the treated mice did show an increase of liver cancer, though those levels “did not reach statistical significance.”

Ultimately, the paper—and the supplement—may prove to be an important step in leading to a formula that, in fact, allows us to live longer, and with a higher quality of life. But for now, as Campisi points out about the splashy new study: “It really reads like an apology for a company.”

Thea Singer has written about health and science for more than three decades. Based in Boston, she is the author of Stress Less (Hudson Street Press/Penguin Group, USA), which reveals how stress ages us down to our DNA, and how to reverse the damage. Learn more at www.theasinger.com.