Tuesday, April 29, 2008

GSK acquires Sirtris Pharmaceuticals

Pharm giant GlaxoSmithKline acquired Sirtris Pharmaceuticals for the tidy sum of $720 million US last week.

This story is interesting not because of the excitement of corporate deals and stock market fluctuations, but because Sirtris Pharmaceuticals specializes in developing small molecule activators of SirT1. And anything involving SirT1 - my protein of interest - is inherently fascinating.

It's actually more interesting for other reasons. Previously on this blog, I've echoed a sentiment common in the skeptical blogosphere: There's no such thing as alternative medicine. Once a treatment has been shown to work, it becomes part of mainstream medicine. Resveratrol, a polyphenol, is a SirT1 activator. SirT1 (I told you it was interesting) has been shown to be involved in insulin signaling, energy metabolism and lifespan extension in model organisms. Other work has shown resveratrol to have cardioprotective and anti-cancer effects. Resveratrol has long been thought to be a molecule behind the 'drink red wine' wisdom.

This all sounds great. And 'alties' probably feel vindicated: Resveratrol has been on sale in health food and dietary supplement stores for ages. Before many of the studies mentioned above had been done, in fact. But don't go reaching for your wineskin just yet. Studies have also shown that oral resveratrol has poor bioavailability.

That's where Sirtris comes in. They develop compounds that are analogs of resveratrol to improve potency and bioavailability (and patentability), and test those compounds. And Big Pharma (GSK) has taken notice, decided this is viable science, and acquired Sirtris in the hopes of turning these compounds into diabetes, anti-obesity or anti-aging drugs. Like other examples we've discussed this is a case of a natural or alternative medicine becoming mainstream (or, rather, the beginning steps of that process).

The moral of the story isn't that natural products work. In this case it doesn't - all resveratrol supplements will give you is expensive urine. The point is that if the science is there, the medicine will come.

There's still a possibility that these compounds will fail for one reason or another. Perhaps they won't be effective in humans as in rodents. Maybe there will be toxicity issues. If this happens, no doubt that Big Pharma conspiracy theorists will jump up and down saying that GSK made the purchase to squash a promising natural medicine. An almost 1 billion dollar investment seems to be a bit much for such a petty goal. If I was the big, evil corporation, I'd sink that money into the supplement makers and keep it on the shelves. But shrewd companies know that a tested drug has more value than an untested one. The only reason not to get science onside is if you don't think it will support you.