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Online Extra: A Longevity Company's First Steps

A pill that could extend life by 10 years or more would surely dwarf sales of just about any other drug on the market. Yet the company most determined to put such a fountain of youth in a pill isn't one of the pharmaceutical giants, which have pretty much avoided this whole area of complex research. Instead, it's a small, privately held startup in Cambridge, Mass., Elixir Pharmaceuticals.

Elixir's size is more than trumped by its founders' credentials. Two of the biggest names in longevity research, Leonard Guarente of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California at San Francisco, started the company in 1999 to capitalize on their research into the genes and other biological mechanisms underlying aging.

They have since been joined by other leading lights in the field and have gained access to the world's largest database of information on people over 100 years old, the New England Centenarian Study. Thomas Perls of Boston University, the study's director, has also joined Elixir. And to give it a more business-like focus, on Sept. 8 Elixir hired a new president and CEO, William K. Heiden, a long-time executive in the pharmaceutical industry who last headed Praecis Pharmaceuticals (PRCS).

DUAL-PURPOSE GENES. Guarente and Kenyon are both focusing on specific genes that control the pace of aging by regulating caloric intake. However, Guarente says Elixir's initial product likely won't be an anti-aging pill, simply because it would be too difficult to ever win approval for such a drug -- clinical trials could well take 70 years.

Instead, says Guarente, "the company is really searching for lead compounds that could be developed into drugs for metabolic diseases, like diabetes or obesity." These diseases, as it happens, seem to be regulated by the same genes that influence aging. Guarente predicts that such a pill could be available within 5 to 10 years.

If he's right, expect a lot of off-label prescriptions for boomers looking to beat the clock. By Catherine Arnst in New York

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