A leading biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with backing from five scientists who are Nobel prize recipients, is wading into the murky world of dietary supplements with a new antiaging pill that is said to restore muscle tissue, improve brain function, and increase energy levels by improving “metabolic health.”
Leonard Guarente, one of the best-known antiaging researchers in the region, and the roster of eminent scientists have formed Elysium Health, which on Tuesday will debut its first product, a pill called Basis. They say it will enable the body to produce more of a natural compound that supports a healthy metabolism.
Many products in the supplement business are launched with questionable science, but Elysium said studies in mice show a clear connection between increased levels of this compound, called NAD, and improved health in older mice.
“There have been a lot of new findings in the past five years identifying some extremely promising compounds that promote wellness and health. [We want to] make them available for people to improve their health before they get sick,” said Guarente, an Elysium Health founder and its chief scientific officer. “We are filling a space by combining natural compounds with scientific validation.”
The active ingredients in Basis are nicotinamide riboside, a substance that makes NAD and is found in traces in many foods such as milk, and pterostilbene, an antioxidant found in blueberries. Both substances are available individually as dietary supplements.
At a recommended dose of two gel caps daily, a month’s supply of Basis will cost $60 ($50 with a membership) and will be available online only. The company’s chief executive is Eric Marcotulli, previously a partner at the Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia Capital.
Among the scientific heavyweights advising Elysium Health are Martin Karplus, emeritus professor of chemistry at Harvard and a 2013 Nobel Laureate; Tom Sudhof, a Stanford School of Medicine professor who received a Nobel in 2013; Eric Kandel, a biochemist and biophysicist at Columbia University and a 2000 Nobel Laureate; Aaron Ciechanover, distinguished research professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and a 2004 Nobel recipient; and Jack Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who received a Nobel in 2009.
Szostak said his role at Elysium Health is to scour scientific literature for new natural compounds that are shown to improve health and bring them to the company’s attention as potential ingredients in new products.
“What interests me in this is that it is a different challenge, to apply what we are learning through basic research, not just to curing disease but to keeping people healthy,” said Szostak, who runs a research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. “If you go to Whole Foods or CVS, you see miles of dietary supplements and vitamins. Most of them have no scientific basis, and you don’t know what you are getting.”
Guarente was involved in several other efforts to develop antiaging medicines that did not pan out. He was a founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals and then became involved with Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which conducted research into the potential antiaging properties of a chemical found in red wine.
With Elysium, Guarente and his colleagues are entering an industry with a mixed reputation. At $25 billion annually and growing, vitamins and supplements are hugely popular among consumers. But the business has often been criticized by mainstream medicine for making ambitious claims about quick cures and miraculous health improvements that are not subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
If Elysium Health were developing Basis as a drug, it would have to conduct clinical trials with humans to prove that it works, and the Food and Drug Administration would have to sign off on its scientific evidence before it could be sold as medicine.
But as a supplement, Basis and similar products only have to be shown to be safe for humans to take, with labels that are not misleading. With Basis, for example, there is no scientific evidence yet that the pill would produce the same beneficial effect in humans as in mice.
Indeed, one scientist not involved with Elysium questions the company’s marketing pitch, saying there is too little information to know what Basis can do.
“It is not quite clear to me what they want to target with this pill,” said Pere Puigserver, a biology professor at Harvard Medical School. “What does it mean, to improve metabolic health? And what exactly is being repaired in the body? And is the outcome the same for everyone?”
Puigserver, who runs a cancer biology lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, noted that addressing health and aging through metabolism involves a complex web of pathways and mechanisms.
“We need more information on how this works precisely in people before we can advise them to take anything,” he said.
Guarente pledged that Elysium Health would be unlike most other companies in the business: It is conducting studies of its pill in humans and will release the results.
“As soon as we have analyzed the data, we will publish them on our website,” he said.
One of the venture capitalists backing Elysium Health acknowledged that skepticism is among the company’s greater challenges.
“This space is traditionally driven by marketing language,” said Kal Vapuri, whose New York firm Trisiras Group is one of Elysium’s initial funders. “But we will be data-driven and will communicate the complexities of science in simple ways.”
The pill described in this story is the first product of Elysium Health, a new company formed with the backing of many leading researchers in the field. The company claims to be science and data driven and suggests that its product is superior to other dietary supplements that haven’t been scientifically validated. We think the story should have been more forceful in exposing the hypocrisy of that stance. The company says it will provide evidence to support its claims at some point in the future, but it is selling the supplements NOW. So it is essentially doing the same thing that other unscrupulous supplement sellers are doing — enriching themselves based on the “promise” of a product that hasn’t been shown to provide any health benefit. The fact that Nobel laureates are the ones doing it is unfortunate, since their stature will distract consumers from the emptiness of the company’s claims.
With all that being said, the article does inject some context and a healthy dose of skepticism into this trendy topic. It doesn’t accept the company’s claims without challenge. It juxtaposes the big name affiliations of the company’s leaders and advisers with the uncertainty surrounding their wares. We just think it should have done more on that front and put it higher up in the story.
Dietary supplements are widely available but lightly regulated. When big scientific names back such a product, good reporting is critical to cut through the hype and shed light on the product’s real value. We’re pleased to see that many commenters on this story apparently saw through the smoke screen of Nobel names and sniffed out what’s really going on here:
The story tells us early on in the story that a month’s supply of the pill, called Basis, costs $50-60. So consumers will pay up to $700 a year for the privilege of helping the company test its pills.
The article quotes the company as saying that higher levels of the “natural compound” (found already in the human body) that is targeted by active ingredients in Basis has been associated with improved health in older mice, and that the pill has not been studied in humans. However, the article doesn’t tell us anything about the mouse studies directly: What sort of “improved health” did researchers find in the mice? Have researchers studied the active ingredients in Basis, or just the compound that these ingredients target?
To be clear, the story also quotes skeptical researchers who are asking very similar questions. For example: “What does it mean, to improve metabolic health? And what exactly is being repaired in the body? And is the outcome the same for everyone?” But did the story pose these tough questions to the company and fail to get a response? If so, a brief acknowledgment of that effort would have earned the story a satisfactory rating here.
Another route to a satisfactory score would have been to summarize some previous studies involving the active ingredients in Basis, such as pterostilbene.
The story suggests that supplements such as Basis “have to be shown to be safe for humans to take” prior to being sold, and the story does not mention any potential harms. This language will likely give readers a false sense of security. How can we be sure that a product is “safe for humans to take” if it’s never been tested in humans? Even if we don’t know what specific harms might occur with this supplement, the story could have referenced examples of previous supplements that passed regulatory muster but were subsequently shown to cause serious harm (e.g. ephedra). It could also have mentioned the harm to your wallet of spending $700 a year on an untested product.
We thought the story could have done a better job of grilling the Nobel laureates associated with this company. For example, it lets one of them suggest that their product is somehow better than the supplements sold at Whole Foods and CVS, where “you see miles of dietary supplements and vitamins” that have “no scientific basis.” In fact, a supplement that’s never been tested in humans also has little if any scientific basis for being sold.
The story does redeem itself later on by explaining the lack of evidence in humans with respect to the Basis pill and dietary supplements in general. Example: “there is no scientific evidence yet that the pill would produce the same beneficial effect in humans as in mice.”
The premise of the new supplement — one that is never challenged by the story — is that aging is somehow a “condition” that needs to be treated with a new medicine. Loss of muscle and other aspects of aging are normal changes that people experience as they age — not conditions in need of a cure. The framing of aging as a “condition” opens the door to expensive and untested approaches that waste money and encourage the use of more pills that can interact unpredictably. The story should have done more to resist this framing.
The article quotes a reputable source who provides an appropriately skeptical view — one of the strongest aspects of this piece
We give the story credit for mentioning that each of the active ingredients in Basis are already available in separate pills. But since the story is about a company that claims to offer healthier aging in a pill, we thought it was especially important to mention non-chemical approaches that are also associated with healthy aging, such as a good diet and exercise. The story didn’t do that.
The article mentions the pill will be available online and debuted on Tuesday.
The story provides excellent context for this product. It explains that the active ingredients are sold separately, but this is the first time this particular compound has been produced.
The article goes beyond any press release