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A Handful of Genes Control Aging: Can We Control Them?

But all of this is a long way off. First researchers will have to develop the drugs that turn on the sirtuin genes. Sinclair’s company, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, has only just started tests in humans on its first candidate drug, a compound that it hopes will treat diabetes. The potential drug has been found to be safe in early trials but there’s no evidence yet that it actually works on people, he said. If it does, it will be years before the drug makes it to market. Sirtris and other companies like Elixir Pharmaceuticals are working on other drugs to target sirtuins, but those are an even longer way off.

And still more years of testing will need to be done to determine whether a sirtuin-boosting drug actually causes people to live longer. Many researchers in the field are optimistic because research is starting to uncover many different pathways affected by these genes. That gives researchers lots of targets for developing new drugs and boosts their odds of succeeding.

“The vagaries of drug development are difficult to predict,” said Guarente, who also works for Sirtris. “It could be 10 years or more or it could be sooner. We really don’t know. I’m sure we’re moving in the right direction.”

But there are also many technical obstacles in developing an effective drug and there’s no guarantee that any of this will work.

“We’re running to home plate but we could still be out,” said Sinclair.

Karen Rafinski is a freelance medical and science journalist based in Boston.

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