Turning back time

09 Nov 2017

Author: Heather Jacobs and Maryanne Blacker

Photography: Britta Campion


It might sound like science fiction but Australian scientist and entrepreneur David Sinclair is determined to slow the ageing process and revolutionise medicine and healthcare. He strongly believes that a pill to reverse the effects of ageing is only a few years away.
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Australian biologist David Sinclair is on mission to alleviate human suffering in old age and give people the chance to live longer, better lives.

“There are many molecules we know now of that can slow down aspects of ageing in mice. The question is no longer an ‘if’, but a ‘when’,” says Sinclair.

“Most likely, people in the future will take a cocktail of molecules that can slow ageing and prevent common age-related diseases. We’re not sure how much longer people will live but in mice these molecules prevent many diseases of old age, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” he says.

“The molecules were initially discovered by studying a longevity gene in yeast cells called SIR2. The new molecules that target the human SIR2 are hundreds of times more potent that these original molecules.” 

In March 2017, Sinclair and University of New South Wales (UNSW) scientist Dr Lindsay Wu made another breakthrough in their anti-ageing quest – managing to reverse the ageing process in mice through DNA repair. 

Sinclair's team fed a two-year-old mouse a compound called NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) mixed in water, and turned it back into a three-month-old mouse. The NAD+ boosted the cells’ ability to repair damage.

“The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice, after just one week of treatment,” says Sinclair. 

Human trials of the drug began this year. 

Anti-ageing drug on the horizon

“This is the closest we are to a safe and effective anti-ageing drug that’s perhaps only three to five years away from being on the market if the trials go well,” says Sinclair, who is founding director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging at Harvard Medical School in the US.
Sinclair’s preoccupation with ageing is driven by the belief that this knowledge can be used to prevent and treat both rare and common diseases, helping people live healthier, disease-free lives. His work at Harvard and at a lab in the School of Medical Sciences at UNSW, focuses on genes and small molecules that mimic exercise and calorie restriction, a diet that slows the pace of ageing in animals.  
“Ageing is the root cause of most major diseases,” he says. So, he reasons, why not find a cure for ageing?
The work by Sinclair and his team has caught the attention of NASA, as it considers how to keep its astronauts healthy during a four-year mission to Mars. 

Even on short missions, astronauts experience accelerated ageing from cosmic radiation, suffering from muscle weakness, memory loss and other symptoms when they return. On a trip to Mars, the situation would be far worse: five per cent of the astronauts’ cells would die and their chances of cancer would approach 100 per cent.

Cosmic radiation is not only an issue for astronauts. We are all exposed to it each time we fly on an aircraft.

In theory, Sinclair’s research could be applied to frequent flyers, as well as women suffering from infertility or people affected by cancer.

Sinclair is as much an entrepreneur as a scientist, having founded several biotechnology companies (Sirtris, Ovascience, Genocea, Cohbar, MetroBiotech, ArcBio, Liberty Biosecurity) and invented 35 patents, derived from his extensive research over the years.

A turning point in the lab

You could say it’s in his genes; Sinclair’s parents are trained biochemists and growing up in St. Ives, in the northern suburbs of Sydney, his parents would talk about their work at the dinner table. He enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at UNSW. Doing bench research in molecular biology in the lab of Professor Ian Dawes at UNSW, a molecular biologist and geneticist, was a turning point.

“You couldn’t drag me out of the lab after that,” he says.

He received the Commonwealth Prize for his PhD research in Molecular Genetics. Sinclair then moved to the US to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Professor Leonard Guarente, an American biologist renowned for his research on life extension.

It was here that he discovered why yeast cells grow old – their DNA is unstable – leading him to be headhunted by Harvard Medical School in 1999. He was 29 years old at the time, and has been there ever since, becoming a tenured professor in the world’s leading genetics department. He is also a Professor at the Lowy Cancer Research Centre at UNSW.

“The thing I love about Harvard is being able to tackle almost any scientific problem because a world leader is likely to be within walking distance,” he says.

He may now spend his days solving the most fundamental questions of life, but Sinclair has fond memories of the lifestyle he had growing up in Australia.

“My parents’ house was on the edge of a forested gully. There were many native animals and I went into the bush most days.  I think this closeness to nature had a big influence on me,” he says.

“Because I am Australian, I was able to aim high without worrying about the consequences.  I would ask myself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen to me if I fail while in the US?’  I get to go home. I can live with that. Things didn’t turn out that way, but I was never scared to take on risky projects.”