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New Anti-Aging Pill Under Fire

In an era of seemingly magical technology, the notion that scientists could develop a pill that might slow the aging process doesn’t seem that far-fetched. After all, we can now perform face transplants. We can control machines with our minds. How far could we be from producing a treatment that rejuvenates our cells?

According to some researchers: We’re already there. For several years now, a handful of supplement and biotechnology companies claim to be hot on the trail of the miracle anti-aging formula humankind has long sought—and one product has already hit the market.

Made from a Chinese herb called Astragalus membranaceus, the “nutraceutical” is referred to by the equally futuristic and drab-sounding name of TA-65. And it claims to reverse the clock at a cellular level, all the way down to our DNA. The capsule ranges from $1,200 to $4,000 for a six-month supply, depending on the dose.

T.A. Sciences, a New York supplement company, manufactures the pill, and employees swear by it. “My immune system is younger, my eyesight is improved, the glucose and cholesterol levels in my blood have gone down, and I have increased cognitive function,” says Noel Patton, the 65-year-old founder and CEO of the company. He’s been taking it for four years.

The mainstream scientific community has, for the most part, viewed the supplement extremely skeptically. But a new study, backed up by a few scientific heavyweights, suggests that it may just work. The paper appears today in Aging Cell—though the journal was so eager to get the word out that it posted it online in late March, even before the acknowledgments were complete. My quest to investigate the study, however, led to a tangled web of believers and nonbelievers, and a raging controversy in the field of anti-aging research. Is T.A. Sciences marketing snake oil, or a ticket to prolonged youth?

To understand the paper’s implications, it helps to understand how TA-65 claims to work. The pill purports to restore our telomeres—the protective caps at the end of our DNA. Like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces, these caps, with time, illness, and stress, eventually wear down, leading to physical signs of aging. Scientists now view telomere length as an overall marker of biological aging. For example, babies have longer telomeres than adults—or, as Patton put it to me, in a kind of cognitive foot-in-mouth, “babies are always born young.”

My quest to investigate the study led to a tangled web of believers and nonbelievers—and a raging controversy in the field of anti-aging research.

The "anti-aging" herbal supplement TA-65, which the scientific community has long dismissed as snake oil, might actually work. (Getty Images)

Over the past few decades, the study of telomeres has risen to become a white-hot area of very legitimate scientific research. In 2009, a team of scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their breakthrough research into how telomeres work. Each time a cell divides, its telomeres get progressively shorter. When telomeres get so short that a cell can’t function, the cell either enters a resting state or dies.

But there’s a rejuvenative source for these worn-out cells. And that’s what T.A. Sciences aims to tap into—along with a California company called Geron Corp., a biotech dedicated to developing drugs to treat cancer and chronic degenerative diseases, which licensed TA-65 to Patton as a neutraceutical while keeping its own extract from the Chinese plant, called TAT2, to develop as a drug.

That life-giving source is the enzyme telomerase, which can actually lengthen telomeres. TA-65, the new study claims, is a “telomerase activator”—that is, it turns on telomerase in cells. Studies suggest that telomerase can also be activated naturally, through exercise, meditation, and other healthy lifestyle changes. But taking a pill is, of course, easier.

The lead author of the new paper is Maria Blasco, a prolific scientist who heads the Telomeres and Telomerase Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre. In the paper, Blasco reports that in genetically engineered mice, TA-65 rescued cells in jeopardy and improved health without increasing cancer incidence—a risk when cells can divide for longer periods of time.

In her study, a group of middle-aged and old mice ate food spiked with TA-65, while another group, the controls, ate plain food. (The age of the mice was intentional: TA-65 is marketed to people in their forties and up.) After three months, the scientists took blood samples, and measured the lengths of the telomeres of both groups. And sure enough: Mice that ate the TA-65 had a lower percentage of “very short telomeres.” They also displayed lower insulin levels, hair regrowth, and increased skin plumping. Blasco takes these changes as evidence that TA-65 works by “turning on” telomerase.