Can five Nobel Laureates be wrong?

If you were told of a health supplement that had the backing of five Nobel Prize winners, over a dozen leading research scientists and a plethora of industrial scientists, then you are more than likely to take it seriously. Most members of the general public may not need to look any further with such a recommendation and would probably take it on face value. Science however, doesn’t work like that.  The motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in verba - meaning take nobody’s word for it. Science does not follow the word of anyone, no matter how eminent, instead it follows the evidence.

There is indeed a company that markets a health supplement that has the backing of five Nobel Laureates, over a dozen leading research scientists and a plethora of industrial scientists.  It’s called Elysium Health and the product it sells is called BASIS, made of two ingredients, nicotinamide riboside and a polyphenol called pterostilbene. Nicotinamide riboside is a precursor of vitamin B3 (otherwise known as niacin) and is found in yeast extract. Pterostilbene is found in a number of plants but most notably in blueberries. Both of these substances are classified as supplements (for example, vitamins are supplements) and not drugs. The media are calling BASIS an anti-ageing supplement but it doesn’t seem Elysium are marketing on this basis. In fact I’m finding it hard to pin down exactly what the claims are as it seems to be something to do with ‘metabolic health’ but I don’t know what this means. Some reports state that riboside and pterostilbene have been validated in numerous laboratories to improve metabolic health but the Elysium website is a little more cautious in its claims. Few of the reports that I have seen take the trouble to make any informed critical analysis - skepticism in the media unfortunately is rather rare.  

There have been some laboratory studies in respect to the ingredients of BASIS and anti-ageing properties but the evidence in relation to the claims, I feel, is just a little thin. As an example, it has been shown that restricting calorific intake to mice increases longevity. There is evidence to show that the mechanism is via proteins called sirtuins, that require a co-factor called NAD+ in order to function. Nicotinamide riboside in BASIS is a precursor of NAD+. The trouble is however, that there are so many dots to join between taking a daily capsule containing nicotinamide riboside and anti-ageing effects that this is far from robust scientific proof of efficacy.  There is a paper reporting that nicotinamide riboside shows efficacy in a mouse model for Cockayne Syndrome (and ageing disease) but again, it’s quite a leap to then believe that a daily capsule of nicotinamide roboside will inhibit ageing in people. 

There was a review written in 2013 that lists many in vitro and animal studies on the anti-oxidant properties of pterostilbene (McCormack & McFadden (2013) Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity) but I found it rather unconvincing. Scientific reviews should critically examine the evidence, balancing all sides of an argument, which this pretty much failed to do.  In addition, the evidence presented was very much based upon preliminary laboratory studies and as anyone who have been involved in drug development knows there are lightyears between that and showing clinical efficacy. The biochemical and physiological complexity of the body is more than likely going to thwart attempts at predicting the therapeutic outcome in humans from basic laboratory experiments. Moreover, arguments for the health benefits of pterostilbene are mostly based upon their anti-oxidant properties and the evidence for the efficacy of anti-oxidant supplements in general is controversial to put it mildly.

There have been reports that Elysium plan to collect data from their customers to demonstrate the health benefits but this is entirely the wrong way round. If true, then such uncontrolled anecdotal claims are utterly worthless and are not far from the type of “evidence” quoted by homeopaths. Of all the reports I’ve seen, I hope this one is wrong if Nobel Laureates are involved.

Nobel Laureates are certainly capable of weighing the evidence and it’s hard to say exactly by how much they have really bought into this. The general public however, will not have the same skills as Nobel laureates in weighing the evidence and this is the problem I have with such eminent scientists endorsing such products. I am therefore, surprised and saddened that Nobel Laureates, the pinnacle of scientific achievement, are lending their name to this. Instead they should asking: “what exactly does metabolic health mean”? “Is there a plausible mechanism”?  “Where are the clinical trials”? Because BASIS is being marketed as a supplement, rather than a drug, the regulation is very light-touch and so there’s no regulatory requirement to produce such answers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying BASIS doesn’t work.  What I am saying is that I can’t see any convincing evidence to demonstrate that it does. Given my age, I really hope that it does, but in the words of Louis Pasteur, “the greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because one wishes it to be so”. If convincing evidence came along then as a scientist, I would follow that evidence. All I am saying to Elysium is prove your critics wrong with reliable robust evidence and then market your product, not the other way round.  Otherwise, please give me my Nobel Prize now and I’ll produce the evidence to back up my theory a little later.