Critics are assailing seven Nobel Prize winners and two dozen other high-profile scientists for lending their names and images to a New York supplement company selling an anti-aging pill.
The company, Elysium Health, was started two years ago to market $50-a-month subscriptions to a nutritional supplement called Basis whose ingredients can extend the life span of mice.
Since there’s no proof the supplement pills can do the same for people, Elysium can’t legally say that. And that’s where Elysium’s unusually long list of 35 “scientific advisors,” including the Nobel laureates, may come in. By lending their immense credentials to the company, they are in effect being used to boost sales of what could be a placebo, critics say.
“Some of these people may think that they’re being asked to do this because of their deep insights,” says former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier, an expert in metabolism. “That’s the part that’s a joke. They're not. They are part of a marketing scheme where their names and reputations are being used.”
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Several of Elysium’s scientific advisory board members said their involvement should not be seen as an endorsement of the company or its pills. “The SAB [scientific advisory board] does NOT endorse the products of Elysium. Its sole role is to advise Elysium on the development and testing of its compounds,” Thomas C. Südhof, a Stanford University neurophysiologist who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and who serves on Elysium’s board, writes in an e-mail.
Unlike prescription drugs, supplements such as vitamins and plant extracts are lightly regulated. If they’re safe, they can be sold to the public so long as companies don’t make specific health claims. This is why Elysium offers only vague promises for its supplement Basis, such as saying that the pill will “optimize your health” and “support the long-term health of your cells.”
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But savvy anti-aging enthusiasts will know the real promise of the pill is life extension based on the latest scientific discoveries in cells and animal research, an impression only enhanced by the huge roster of famous names, far more than the half-dozen science advisors most biotech companies rely on.
Flier isn’t the only one questioning why Elysium’s website is plastered with prominent faces. On Twitter, some scientists have put pressure on advisors to resign, and last month one published an open letter arguing that the board members were being exploited.
“With Elysium prominently featuring each of you on their website, there is a sense of scientific gravitas and anti-aging promise that is unheard of in this industry,” reads that letter, which was circulated by Lenny Teytelman, CEO of protocols.io, a repository of scientific protocols. Teytelman says he’s received no responses.
Some advisers have already concluded they were just window dressing. Arnold Kriegstein, who studies brain development at the University of California, San Francisco, who is one of three Elysium advisors who have stepped down from the board, said he felt his scientific input wasn’t needed. “I decided that since I have no real expertise that overlaps with the interests of the company, I would have very little to contribute."
Elysium was co-founded two years ago by MIT professor Leonard Guarente, a prominent anti-aging researcher who studies genes called sirtuins that his team and others have shown can extend the life of laboratory organisms. Proving whether such discoveries will help people is a difficult task that could take years. But since sirtuins can be activated by molecules already widely sold as supplements, Guarente decided to help create Elysium and offer his own supplement mixture.
The company's idea is that it can then use profits to follow up with scientific studies of the pill's effects on humans. "We wanted to take the fastest route to test the compounds and determine whether they would improve human health," Guarente says. “We intend to really make this company be based on rigorous science."
Elysium’s Basis combines two supplements currently on the market, nicotinamide riboside and pterostilbene. Research has shown that, in the body, nicotinamide riboside is turned into NAD, a molecule that extends the life span of worms and mice. Pterostilbene, meanwhile, is similar to a compound found in red wine, resveratrol, also cited as an anti-aging prospect.
Current Elysium advisors reached by MIT Technology Review defended their roles and what they consider the company’s innovative business plan. “I think it’s willing to do science in a field that doesn’t require it,” says geneticist George Church of Harvard Medical School, who became an advisor last month. “My experience is once you get a certain number of good scientists on the SAB, it’s really very hard for the company to misbehave.”
But high-profile boards can also sometimes give a company credibility it doesn't deserve. Blood-testing outfit Theranos, whose claims about its radical new blood test unraveled last year, used board members like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to inflate its stature.
Elysium declined to say how much it is paying its advisory board members, but noted that not all are compensated. Church says in exchange for joining the advisory board he received 0.5 percent of the company’s shares. He has attended one face-to-face meeting with company officials, he says, and had several exchanges by phone and e-mail. He called the workload typical of an advisory role.
Elysium also declined to reveal how many subscribers it has or how much money it is making. In December, it raised $20 million from venture capital investors including General Catalyst, Breyer Capital, Morningside Ventures, and Sound Ventures.
The New York company has started to make good on its promise to back Basis with clinical research. In December, it issued a press release announcing results from its first clinical trial, in which 120 people ages 60 to 80 took either a placebo or a regular or double dose of the Basis pill for eight weeks. The main finding was that the supplement was safe and biologically active in their bloodstreams, meaning it wasn’t simply being flushed out.
The company-funded study is not assuaging doubters. By performing research on a product it already sells, Teytelman, who completed a postdoc at MIT a few floors away from the Guarente lab, thinks Elysium has created a conflict of interest. If the results are negative, “are they just going to shut it down?” he asks. “When you rush to sell something to the consumer with the promise of running the trial, that seems backward.”
Some advisors say Elysium’s effort to put more science behind Basis is laudable and could cause other supplement makers to follow suit. “I’d like to see every company, including the ones you see [advertising] on the back of glossy magazines, be held to the kind of standards that we hold drugs to,” says James Kirkland, a geriatrician who studies the basic biology of aging at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and who has advised Elysium on how to run its clinical trial.
Others are also hopeful that Basis really will work to slow aging. According to Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at Tufts University, who joined Elysium’s advisory board in 2015, “the evidence behind the concept from animal and experimental models is actually very compelling.” Although Mozaffarian says it’s still too early to know whether Basis will work, he takes it himself when he remembers to—roughly every other day.