Nir Barzilai, Director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, thinks he has a plan by which he can extend the years of disease free and healthy living by decades. It is a rather ambitious plan but Barzilai believes that through metformin it can be achieved. Read on to know what how he is planning to achieve this.
Barzilai demonstrated he can stop aging using an inexpensive pill which has a capability of creating history. His efforts have gathered huge investments from industry giants. Armed with such riches, the researchers are now planning to make science fiction a reality and beat death.
They aim to produce new organs from DNA, infuse older bodies with new blood and stem cells from younger people to infuse new life in old people. They even plan to upload their brains to computers. Seems like an impossible mission, right? Well, it might one day become true as the life extension community believes that nothing is actually impossible.
The Silicon Valley is now aiming to postpone aging forever. The business giants are not hesitant in investing money to fund research that will make them immortal. In the New Yorker, one researcher posted the science of anti-aging that is being explored at Google-backed Calico Labs.
The big dreams of Barzilai is in alignment with the ambitions of the Silicon Valley’s tycoons. However, Barzilai wants everyone to benefit from his research rather than just the billionaires. Therefore, he wants the FDA to approve his research and put a seal of approval on his wonder pill.
You must be wondering what this mysterious pill is. Well, it is none other than our most commonly used anti-diabetic medicine, metformin. It costs merely five cents a pill. Just imagine, you can defy aging in just 5 cents a pill. A slightly modified version of this compound is found naturally in Galega officinalis, also known as French lilac and goat’s rue. For centuries, physicians have been prescribing it as an herbal remedy. Even the famous English herbalist John Parkinson have praised the usefulness of this herb. As per some sources, goat’s rue was prescribed centuries ago for treating the condition of frequent urination, which we today know to be the tell-tale symptom of diabetes. In the modern times, metformin is helps in keeping the blood glucose level in check and is the first choice for managing type II diabetes and sometimes prediabetes too. Together, these two conditions affect half of the American adults.
Barzilai first performed extensive studies on metformin in the late 1980s. Later, the drug was approved by FDAfor treating diabetes and no one thought that this compound will have the key to immortality.
When researchers compiled the data of metformin users, they found that people who took metformin were healthy in all sorts of ways. They had a longer life expectancy and had fewer incidents of cardiovascular events. In some studies, regular use of metformin prevented development of dementia and Alzheimer’s as well. However, the most surprising thing was these people had 25-40% better defense against cancer as compared to people who took other popular pills for managing their diabetes. Even when the people who were on metformin got cancer, they survived for a longer period of time. Mystifying, isn’t it!
Lewis Cantley, Director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, stated that metformin is the only drug in the human history that has saved so many people from cancer. Even the Nobel laureate James Watson prescribed metformin off label for preventing cancer and believes that metformin has the key for fighting cancer.
The more these scientists are uncovering about this medieval period wonder drug, the more amazed they are becoming. Apart from the potential of metformin in curing these indications, researchers are investigating whether metformin will help in improving the symptoms in addition to exploring its potential to help treat the most common afflictions of aging, researchers are now also investigating whether metformin might help in improving the symptoms of tuberculosis, autoimmune disorders, erectile dysfunction and other such conditions. While much of the research is still in the early stages, physicians prescribe metformin off-label to treat polycystic ovarian syndrome,obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, infertility, and acne.
The first breakthroughs in the field of discovering remedies for anti-aging came in the ’90s, when researchers showed that by doing a single mutation in a microscopic worm caused his life span to become double. This proves that aging process might not be as complex as it was thought earlier. While scientists were understanding the new theories of aging, Barzilai was busy in doing several studies on Superagers, people who live up to unusually old ages.
During the course of his work, he started noticing a pattern that was seen by other researchers as well. He observed that although the superagers met their fatal end from the same diseases as everyone else, but they developed them years later, more specifically, towards the end of their lives. He concluded that if somehow, we could slow down the process of aging, we will be able to add more number of years and also decrease the amount of suffering and expense accompanied with diseases like dementia, cancer, heart disease and others.
Therefore, what Barzilai and his colleagues concluded was that the real promise of antiaging drugs was not immortality but an increase in disease free and healthy days before aging sets in.
However, there is one obstacle in the way, the Food and Drug Administration, for which aging is not a medical condition and therefore, it cannot approve a drug for treating it. Another hurdle in this process is how to ascertain that aging has in fact been slowed down as there are no universally accepted markers. Therefore, another need of the hour is to develop a precedent-setting test case that will help in changing the scenario altogether.
It is less obvious as to which drug should be used for this precedent-setting case. Some suggested a drug called rapamycin, which has shown to outperform metformin in studies of longevity in animals. But this drug is known to have potential side effects like increasing the chances of infections.
If FDA approves antiaging drugs, it will cause a lot of ripples in the health and economic sector. Insurance companies will start covering antiaging drugs. Even the pharmaceutical companies, which hesitate in investing in anti-aging projects, will start researching in this field and produce new and better drugs that will help in extending health span of humans.
Some believe that metformin might be too good to be true. Most of the exciting cancer findings that has been done with respect to the drug has stemmed from observational studies of diabetics. These studies have demonstrated a relation between metformin and decreased cancer rates but fail to prove how it does so or what effects it will have on nondiabetics. There is also a possibility that may be the other non-diabetic drugs were increasing the risks of cancer and metformin is just doing nothing. When metformin was used to treat pancreatic cancer, it was a bust and failed to provide any relief.
While there is a possibility that metformin would prove to be a bust, it is also possible that a chemically similar compound will fill its shoes. Since the drug is no longer under patent, it is extensively studied. Scientists believe that the dose required for managing diabetes might not be sufficient in fighting cancer.
On the other hand, a benefit of this extensive study on metformin has revealed how this drug works inside our cells. After taking a metformin tablet, major portion of it lands up in liver, where it disrupts the process of energy production by cells with the help of oxygen. Do not worry, the drug merely interferes with one stage of the multistage process and is not deadly in nature.
There is a possibility that by interfering with this energy production mechanism, metformin brings down inflammation and treats cancer and other conditions. However, it is important to look for the cascade of metabolic changes that follow. When there is energy crisis in the liver, they start sending out less glucose because they want to survive.
When there is low glucose, pancreas synthesizes less insulin and this whole process, the scientists believe, might be responsible for bestowing metformin with a rainbow of benefits. Scientists believe that too much insulin is responsible for all of the conditions that metformin claims to treat, including aging.
It was not difficult to unravel the link among glucose, insulin, and aging. Insulin gives out a message to the cells that nutrients are available, which is interpreted as a signal to grow and proliferate by the cells. When there is a decrease in the levels of insulin, it sends out a signal that it’s time to enter a life-extending mode of conservation. This is favored by evolution as it did not allow an organism to survive in times of food scarcity and hoped that it will reproduce better when the times were favorable. This also explains why very low-calorie diets can play an important role in extending life span of animals. It is believed that metformin mimics the effects of a low-calorie diet.
We all know that aging in humans is a much more complex process than in microscopic worms and other model organisms, including mice and fruit flies. However, evolution has built on what came first, and there are fundamental similarities in mechanisms across species.
Scientists believe that although they won’t be able to cure all the diseases and increase life span through this process, this is a significant step towards making humans immortal on Earth.