Longevity in a pill. It's a tantalizing idea – and highly suspect. We've seen the "red wine pill" (concentrated resveratrol) soar to wonder-drug status, only to fall with a crash when results failed to live up to the hype. Dashed hopes for that pill have given way to the age-defying promise of metformin, a diabetes drug that affects cell growth, inflammation and metabolism. Meanwhile, at least one scientist with impressive credentials has claimed that rapamycin, a compound discovered in Easter Island soil, has extended the lives of dogs.
For the average Grim-Reaper-fearing Joe, however, the fountain-of-youth product with the most ballyhoo right now is Basis, a supplement from Elysium Health that costs the equivalent of $65 for a month's supply. When you're determined to cheat death, it's hard to ignore a product with a scientific advisory board that includes no less than six Nobel Prize winners in the fields of cancer biology, biochemistry, complex chemical systems and neuroscience.
What's more, Basis is derived from familiar foods you'll find in the fridge: Blueberries. Milk.
But does it work?
No one, including its makers, really knows.
Since it's marketed as a "nutraceutical," not an anti-aging drug, the capsules slipped through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's screening process last year without the need for expensive human trials.
The hypothesis behind the product is intriguing nonetheless. One of the main ingredients is pterostilbene (from blueberries), touted as more potent than resveratrol in activating sirtuins, a class of proteins that regulate biological pathways involved in aging and metabolism. The other key ingredient is NR (from milk), a precursor that converts in the body to NAD, a coenzyme believed to be crucial in metabolism.
This is gobbledygook to most of us, of course. To make sense of the science, I contacted Dr. Eldad Zacksenhaus, a professor in the departments of medical biophysics and laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto.
Zacksenhaus noted in an e-mail that research to support NR as an anti-aging supplement is in its infancy. In a 2016 study published in the journal Science, an NR-rich diet appeared to improve mitochondrial and stem-cell function in mice – and extend their lifespan from an average of 829 to 868 days. But, he pointed out, many treatments that work for mice "fail in humans."
Moreover, even if NR supplementation could indeed rejuvenate human cells, there's no guarantee it would prolong human life. The reason is that senescence – the loss of a cell's power to grow and divide – also serves as a barrier to cancer, he explained. In other words, if NR proves to reverse some facets of aging, "it may also accelerate cancer," said Zacksenhaus, who specializes in the mechanisms of cancer initiation, progression and metastasis.
The best way to put Basis to the death-defying test would be to subject the product to a large human trial involving a control group, and then wait at least 20 to 30 years for results, Zacksenhaus said. Alternatively, NR supplements could be tested in non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, to figure out the minimal effective dose and gauge whether food sources could replace NR in pill form. If a naturally derived product ever shows positive effects in multiple large studies involving higher mammals, he said, "perhaps even the cynics among us would give it a [try]."