Several people have sent me a link to Elysium Health, and I can’t say that it’s improved my morning. This is a supplement company founded by (among others) Leonard Guarente of MIT, who is of course well-known for his work in the study of longevity and aging. The company advertises a large and impressive board of advisers, and states that it:
. . .serves as a novel platform for Lenny and 30+ scientific advisors, doctors, and researchers to shorten the time between discovery and impact on human health. This collaboration allows Elysium to leverage the latest technologies and most significant research to pioneer a new approach to health in our everyday lives.
By “shorten the time”, I think that they mean “set ourselves up in the supplements space so that we don’t have to go through the FDA so much”. That may sound uncharitable, but when I start reading about the company’s first product, “Basis” for “metabolic repair and optimization”, my mood darkens (and see below – that actually is the whole reason). Here’s how Basis is described:
Science has enabled us to intervene at the cellular level to achieve optimal health, beyond what can be accomplished with diet and exercise. Basis focuses on NAD+ levels and sirtuin function in our cells to support vital metabolic processes like detoxification, inflammatory response, energy production, and DNA repair.
Detoxification? Really? There’s one of my biggest objections to this whole venture, summed up in one word. In general – and this has been long noted – anyone who starts talking about “detoxification” and “toxins” is likely to be a quack. It’s a buzzword, something that plays to peoples’ mistaken ideas about medicine and biochemistry, that there are all these toxins from the environment that have to be flushed out somehow for you to be healthy. And I know that Guarente is an excellent scientist, and that the people on the company’s board are, too, which is what upsets me. Why go there? Why sound like something advertised in the back of a cheap magazine?
Reading further, one finds that Basis contains nicontinamide riboside and pterostilbene. The first is an NAD precursor, and is already on sale at your local vitamin shop. (On the scientific end of things, I’m certainly willing to believe that NAD levels could be involved in aging, by the way – I just don’t know what the best way to go about dealing with that might be). And pterostilbene is a close cousin of our old friend resveratrol, and it’s also available down at the shop, too. (This is one of my lesser problems with Elysium, that so far its products are already on sale from other people. I have not compared prices, nor purities).
This article at MIT’s Technology Review lays things out pretty well:
The problem, Guarente says, is that it’s nearly impossible to prove, in any reasonable time frame, that drugs that extend the lifespan of animals can do the same in people; such an experiment could take decades. That’s why Guarente says he decided to take the unconventional route of packaging cutting-edge lab research as so-called nutraceuticals, which don’t require clinical trials or approval by the FDA. . .
. . .“You have high-end prescription drugs up here, which are expensive,” says Guarente, gesturing upward. “And you have the nutraceuticals down there, which are a pig in a poke—you don’t know what you’re getting and you don’t know a lot about the science behind them. There’s this vast space in between that could be filled in a way that’s useful for health maintenance.”
As the article mentions, Guarente has been down the small-biotech route before in this area – the situin story is a long, complicated one (and can be partially explored by going backwards in this archive). And I can understand his point about clinical trials in this area. But it still seems like a big leap from that to the nutraceuticals industry (here’s more on the company’s founding). To quote from the web site: “Subtle changes in overall feeling of well-being, sleep quality, energy consistency, cognitive function, and skin health are often reported within 4-16 weeks of starting. . .” and that’s about as specific as the law will allow you to get. That, and talk about “detoxification”, I guess. When Guarente says that “you have the nutraceuticals down there”, he’s pretty much right about the direction – and now he’s down there with them. It just seems sad, somehow. It makes the legitimate research in this field seem a bit less respectable, which isn’t good, and it makes the supplement hawkers seem a bit more respectable by association, and that’s probably not what Elysium was planning on, either.
Oh, and just as an aside about the name: Elysium itself, according to the ancient Greeks, was indeed a wonderful place populated by the righteous and worthy. After they died.