Your Money for Your Life
How one company carved itself a piece of the anti-aging industry pie
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOELLE BOLT
When it comes to aging, consumers don't slow down for science. The pleas of thousands, starving for a pill that will slow, stop, or reverse the inevitable, clog the Internet. With an insatiable desire for something that doesn't yet exist, people are using themselves as test subjects, and shelling out millions - perhaps billions - of dollars on products unsupported by science. In some cases, they may not even know what they're taking.
Case in point: a product called Protandim. When a deal between two companies to sell the product fell through, one appeared to keep the name but changed the formulation, leaving a glut of information in chat rooms, blogs, and news articles that describes Protandim, but doesn't always specify which one.
In November, Lifeline Therapeutics announced that in just three months it had sold close to $3 million worth of the product, which retails for about $50 for a month's supply. This represents a tiny slice of the dietary supplement industry, valued at $20 billion in the United States alone by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, an industry trade association.
Joe McCord, a professor at the University of Colorado's Denver Health Sciences Center, takes the product, which claims to "fight cellular aging" by inducing endogenous antioxidants. In January, McCord and colleagues published the results of a study in Free Radical Biology & Medicine, during which he and 28 healthy volunteers took Protandim - a mixture of ashwagandha and milk thistle, bacopa, green tea, and tumeric extracts - for up to 120 days. Participants' levels of the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase and catalase increased by 30% and 54%, respectively, while thiobarbituric acid-reacting substances (a measure of oxidation) fell by an average of 40%.
Nevertheless, some Protandim buyers may not know what they're taking. Years ago, Lifeline entered negotiations to market a product called CMX-1152 developed by Ceremedix, a Northeastern University-affiliated biotech in Massachusetts. CMX-1152's potential inspired news articles containing wildly optimistic predictions from Ceremedix sources.
According to a representative of Ceremedix who preferred to remain anonymous, Lifeline began calling CMX-1152 "Protandim," although it is unclear who suggested the name. After the deal between the companies fell apart (for unknown reasons) Ceremedix dropped CMX-1152, and began concentrating on other therapeutic areas. But, he says, a lingering connection to unsubstantiated anti-aging claims has likely cost the company financial backers. "[Ceremedix] does not associate itself with claims of living to 120 years," he adds. "People who made that claim are no longer with the company."
The Protandim that was introduced in February 2005 is a completely different formulation from 1152. Online searches bring up pages describing both. At one point, Lifeline filed a statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, saying that "several erroneous and misleading statements" were made in a Denver network broadcast, and Protandim "is in no way comprised of, or related to, Ceremedix's peptide." Company representatives from Lifeline did not return requests for comment.
Even McCord, now scientific director at Lifeline, says he thinks some consumers may confuse the products. He says he believes in Lifeline's Protandim, but stresses that it does not have a recorded effect on aging. "I wouldn't want to rule out that there might be additional years, but this is not a miracle pill."
The product is a long way from legitimacy when it comes to cellular aging, a process Protandim claims to affect "from the inside out." Steven Austad, based at the University of Texas Health Science Center and the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies in San Antonio, calls McCord's research an "interesting beginning," but even if Protandim helps boost the body's antioxidant activity, there's no evidence that it has an effect on aging. Without placebo control, it's impossible to say whether study participants might have changed their lifestyles because they were being studied. Still, Austad gives the company credit for human testing-a step most companies selling anti-aging products don't even bother to take.