In September, a rash of stories appeared about a study contradicting the claim that a class of proteins called sirtuins might be a possible anti-aging cure. “Longevity genes challenged,” Nature declared. “Longevity Gene Debate Opens Trans-Atlantic Rift,” wrote Nicholas Wade at The New York Times. “New study debunks longevity link for GSK’s sexy sirtuins,” wrote John Carroll for Fierce Biotech, the online tabloid of the biotech industry. “Those sexy ‘fountain of youth’ studies on sirtuins …have failed to live up to the initial hype,” Carroll wrote.
Faced with the barrage of whiplash-inducing headlines, I could only ask, “Haven’t we been here before?”
As a medical writer since the 1970s, I’ve seen the boom-and-bust-cycle play out for dozens of supposed miracle cures.
Take the endorphins – a family of natural chemicals made by the human body that work similarly to painkilling drugs like morphine. Endorphins were claimed to provide natural pain relief, while imbalances in endorphins were thought to underlie chronic pain, drug addiction (the “self-medicating” hypothesis), mental illness, and even the placebo effect. In the late 1970s, one drug in this class, FK 33-824, entered early clinical trials. Then it disappeared.
Years later I asked a scientist who had been heavily involved in endorphin research what had happened to this compound. “Have you seen anything more about it?” he asked me. “That’s your answer.” Severe safety problems sandbagged the drug. Nowadays endorphins only survive in popular references to the highly touted (but probably mythical) “runner’s high.”
Weight loss is the most notorious example of the boom-and-bust cycle. Starting with amphetamines in the 1950s, many compounds have been billed as safe, effective weight-loss drugs. None has survived the ultimate test: long-term daily use in humans. Drug after drug has been pulled from the market after causing serious side effects, from addiction (amphetamines) to fatal high blood pressure and heart defects (fen-phen in the 1990s) to sibutramine, which was just removed from major markets last year.
A group of physicians from Stockholm summarized this dismal history in the Journal of Obesity earlier this year: “The development of antiobesity medicines has been problematic and characterized by heavy marketing followed by withdrawals from the market after reports of safety problems.” Combination pharmacotherapy for obesity – using multiple medications instead of just one – is the new mantra and a duo called leptin/amylin the newest candidate. A December 2011 journal article says that this combo is “very promising,” before ending with the observation that the latest clinical trial on the drug duo “was recently stopped due to safety concerns.”
To quote the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “This is like deja vu all over again.”
Two things seem clear to me. First, people want to lose weight or enjoy a healthy old age the easy way. We don’t want to break a sweat or give up pleasures such as rich food and alcohol. Pleasure and comfort are powerful motivators; they seem to be hardwired into our brain’s reward system.
Second, pharmacological approaches to behavioral health don’t work and often have serious adverse effects. Our body knows what our brain denies; there are no shortcuts to health. Even that old conventional standby the multivitamin has come under fire as being useless, as LWON’s own Christie Aschwanden has reported.
I, too, hate all the peeling and chopping and disposing of rinds and seeds and skins necessitated by a fruit and vegetable-heavy diet. And don’t get me started on artichokes. However, it looks like there may not be a shortcut even to getting the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Maybe the Bible was on to something with that business about earning good things by the sweat of our brow.
As a June Science News article on sirtuins concluded: “So for now, people are left to protect their aging bodies the old-fashioned way, by exercising enough and not eating too much.” To which I would add, Don’t throw away your running shoes yet.
Bill Check is a freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Image courtesy of Heather B., Sweet Peas Photography/flickr.