Nonprofit Newswire | An Unhealthy Mix of Pharmaceuticals and Nonprofits

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August 12, 2010; Source: Xconomy | Who wouldn’t want to slow the process of aging, especially if the anti-aging med was sold at cost through a nonprofit? At Sirtris Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass., scientists developed a drug based on the red wine chemical resveratrol, initially meant to address Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and other diseases, that purports to slow aging. There is no firm research on whether the drug actually prolongs lifespans—or what the long term effects of the drug on people are—but interest in anything that even sounds like it could tack on a few years is high.

Sirtris is now part of the London-based GlaxoSmithKline company. Xconomy has learned that two Sitris-now-Glaxo executives are selling resveratrol dietary supplements through a nonprofit they run called the Healthy Lifespan Institute. The $540 cost of a one-year supply covers manufacturing and distribution, but there is no profit to the nonprofit. Because its resveratrol pills are being sold as dietary supplements, it is able to bypass the FDA testing necessary were it to be marketed as a drug.

The execs that run the nonprofit still work for Glaxo, claiming that they volunteer for Healthy Lifespan. They have also created a venture capital firm in partnership with one of the co-founders of Sirtris. Oddly, Healthy Lifespan sells the reveratrol supplements while not explicitly endorsing their use. One of the missions of the nonprofit is to study the effects of “resveratrol and other non-pharmaceutical interventions on the aging process,” but it has started no human studies and says it would need millions of dollars to do so.

Xconomy’s article focuses on the lack of information on drugs marketed as dietary supplements, suggesting that Healthy Lifespan Institute customers will have to proceed at their own risk. For us at NPQ, the subtext questions are what’s nonprofit about the Healthy Lifespan Institute and how does its marketing of resveratrol benefit Glaxo’s for-profit operations? Guess what? Within a day of the Xconomy article, Glaxo asked something similar: how could two of its executives, working on perfecting resveratrol as a prescription drug, be connected to a nonprofit doing online sales of the stuff as a dietary supplement?

Suddenly, the online sales from Healthy Lifespan disappeared and the Glaxo execs were ordered to leave the nonprofit. Our guess is that Healthy Lifespan may have a shorter lifespan than its founders anticipated.—Rick Cohen