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Rapamycin (Rapamune)

Best hope yet for a true ‘anti-aging’ pill


Rapamycin (Rapamune, Sirolimus) is a drug derived from the bacterium Streptomyces hygroscopicus. It was discovered during the '70s in the soil of Easter Island. The drug is marketed under the name of Rapamune, by Wyeth. Rapamycin was originally developed as an antifungal agent, but this line of research was abandoned when it was discovered that it had potent immunosuppressive and antiproliferative properties. It is now routinely used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients, and in anti-proliferative stents implanted into patients to keep their coronary arteries open. Its anti-proliferative properties make it a strong candidate as an anti-cancer agent, and it is also showing promise in the treatment of autism.

Now a group of US researchers have published a bombshell in the scientific journal, Nature. They have shown that administering Rapamycin to old mice (equivalent to 60 years in humans) extended their predicted remaining lifespan by between 28% and 38%. In humans, this would equate to an extra 8-15 years or so of life, which would extend the average Western lifespan to around 90 years or more. As the drug also appears to prevent cancer and heart disease, even this figure might potentially be conservative.

Researcher Dr Arlan Richardson, of the Barshop Institute, said: "I've been in aging research for 35 years and there have been many so-called 'anti-ageing' interventions over those years that were never successful. I never thought we would find an anti-ageing pill for people in my lifetime; however, rapamycin shows a great deal of promise to do just that."

Professor Randy Strong, of the University of Texas Health Science Center, said: "We believe this is the first convincing evidence that the ageing process can be slowed and lifespan can be extended by a drug therapy starting at an advanced age.

"This study has clearly identified a potential therapeutic target for the development of drugs aimed at preventing age-related diseases and extending healthy lifespan. If Rapamycin, or drugs like Rapamycin, works as envisioned, the potential reduction in health cost will be enormous."

Rapamycin appears to act in a way that mimics calorie restriction, which is known to increase longevity in many species. It targets a protein in cells called mTOR, which controls a number of processes involved in metabolism and response to stress. Unfortunately this is not a drug that people should be taking to attempt to extend their lives, largely because of its immunosuppressive effects. According to Dr Harrison, "It may do more harm than good, as we know neither optimal doses nor schedules of when to start for anti-ageing effects."

However there are several reasons not to book your 100th birthday part quite yet. Rapamycin is an immune suppressant, and chronic ingestion would open the way for opportunistic infection of many kinds. It also seem to target pathways involved in long-term memory, so although you might live longer you could end up forgetting your earlier life! And of course, mice are very different from humans, and what applies to them may not transfer to a 'human model'. In fact, if the history of drug testing on mice is anything to go by, there is every chance that this is the case.

So this new discovery doesn't put an anti-ageing pill in our hands, but is does open a path to designing other chemicals that can provide the same benefits without the unwanted side effects - something that could happen relatively quickly now that the principle is established. The bottom line is that this is probably one of the most significant steps made so far toward a genuine longevity pill that will not only extend the human lifespan significantly, but increase the general health of older people in the years remaining to them - and this could be reality in the very near future.

There is however another fly in the ointment. With austerity and a 'pension crisis' already in progress across the Western world, due largely to financial mismanagement by governments, financial authorities and businesses in the past, and to a lesser extent to a relatively modest increase in average lifespan, what would be the effect of an extra ten years or more of healthy lifespan on this mess?

The fact is that present systems simply could not cope, and it is inevitable that the 'authorities' will seek to keep this line of research out of the limelight, and to control absolutely who can and who cannot access longevity drugs, in the event that effective ones become available.

So don't expect to be able to walk into your corner pharmacy in a few years time and buy your antiaging pills over the counter. If you are excited by the prospect of watching your grandchildren's children grow up, actively keep a watch on developments, and when the time comes, fight for your right to access these life-enhancing drugs.

Health-Answers article date: 9th July, 2009.

Search terms for this topic: rapamycin, rapamune, wyeth, longevity pill, antiageing, anti-aging.

See also TA-65



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