A framed poster of the zany professor who proved the theory of relativity hangs above the desk of Scripps Florida’s department of metabolism and aging chairman. It reads, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
“I just like that quote,” says Roy Smith, an internationally recognized scientist in the field of growth-hormone research.
Smith should like it. The doctor of organic chemistry imagines a world in which the elderly rejuvenate with age, men experience the same metabolism through the decades and women don’t reach menopause until they turn 70. He has paved a pathway to that world through groundbreaking work on a synthetic compound that could reverse the signs of senescence.
“It sounds too good to be true,” Smith quips. “It sounds like I’m selling snake oil.”
As a scientist, he has tried to disprove his hypothesis that a compound can be used to reverse the signs of aging. He has come up short every time. From the day five years ago he walked into the Jupiter building with the structure of the DNA helix on top, he has questioned the loss of functionality that comes with getting old.
“I think it’s for selfish reasons,” the 71-year-old says. “Just seeing how people suffer … that’s the depressing thing. I think the whole purpose of nature is maintenance of the species.”
Smith, who says he feels 30 years his junior through healthy eating and walking on the beach for exercise, has taken his imagination and his knowledge – along with a staff of eight faculty members – on a quest to find the molecular fountain of youth. His team has embarked on the third phase of the synthetic-compound study, and the results look encouraging.
By intervening in the growth-hormone axis, those in their golden years could experience improved immune systems, muscle mass and skin texture. They could live independently and possibly make nursing homes a thing of the past.
“HMOs are never going to reimburse for that pill,” Smith jokes.
The aged also could retain memory abilities and have a dramatically reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease – another key area within his department.
Most recently, Smith received a fellowship grant from the founders of Leta Lindley Prader-Willi Classic, whose granddaughter Josilyn Faith Levine has the rare syndrome that results in excessive eating to the point of injury or death. The grant pays for laboratory tests of ghrelin – the hunger-stimulating hormone that’s highly concentrated in the blood of Prader-Willi patients – and experiments with whether certain receptors can regulate its levels.
Smith’s previous investigations of metabolics and age-related changes in the body included tests involving the hormone.
“It’s given us a great opportunity to do something about Prader-Willi,” he says. “The model is very promising.”
Prader-Willi occurs in an estimated one in 10,000+, and characteristics include underdevelopment, learning delays and life-threatening obesity. Patients need constant supervision.
Lindley, a well-known LPGA professional, champions the cause and directs the annual golf tournament that raises money for the grant. This year, the classic featured three dozen LPGA Tour players, including Beth Bader, Jackie Gallagher-Smith and Michelle McGann.
Smith doesn’t play the links; he prefers soccer.
“The [Levine] family came to me and said, ‘If you can do something for Prader-Willi, we can make you a scratch golfer,’” he says. “I said, ‘Your job is harder than mine.’”