Medical researchers say that the drug metformin, used for treating type 2 diabetes, could become the world’s first anti-aging drug that enables adults to live well beyond 120 years. According to experts, the drug could extend healthy life and lifespan, and stave off illnesses associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Scientists believe that metformin, the world’s most widely-used diabetes drug, is a good candidate for an anti-aging drug because tests conducted using animals demonstrated the ability of the drug to slow down the aging process.
Metformin, which suppresses glucose production in the liver and increases sensitivity to insulin, has been used for more than six decades to treat type 2 diabetes and is considered a safe drug for humans.
A series of tests, conducted by a team of Belgian researchers on a species of roundworms, C. elegans, found that metformin prolonged the lives of the roundworms by making them age more slowly and keeping them healthier for longer.
Other trials found that it also prolongs the healthy life and lifespan of certain strains of mice.
Experts at Cardiff University in the U.K. also pointed to anecdotal evidence that human patients treated with metformin for diabetes live longer than expected, often longer than people without diabetes. The anecdotal evidence is paradoxical because diabetes normally shortens lifespan, as sufferers have a heightened susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and kidney complications.
Based on results of tests on animals, scientists believe metformin could also make humans live beyond 120 years.
Researchers plan to conduct the first clinical trials of the project, dubbed Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), next year to see whether results obtained in animals can also be replicated in humans. Researchers are hopeful of a major breakthrough in the decades-long search for an anti-aging drug.
The study, to be conducted in the U.S., will involve 3,000 adults aged 70- to 80-years-old, with known risk of cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases that cause cognitive impairment, and people who already have one or a combination of the conditions.
The individuals will be placed on the drug and monitored to see if it exerts significant preventive effect on the disease conditions, or whether it affects the progress of the conditions and overall lifespan of participants.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given approval for trials to proceed.
The scientific implications of success of the trials are profound. If the results obtained in animals tests are successfully replicated in humans, it means that 70-year-olds who have been on anti-aging therapy with metformin could have the same biological age, health, and vigor as healthy people in their 50s.
It means that aging could soon be seen as a disorder that can be treated with drugs that delay aging-related diseases, and slow down the processes of aging itself.
Researchers hope that success of trials with metformin could spur funding of aging research and trials with other potential anti-aging drugs.
Although researchers believe there are other drugs that could be more effective than metformin for delaying aging, they are focusing on metformin because it has been shown to be a safe drug for humans after six decades of use for controlling type 2 diabetes.
Metformin’s proven safety makes it a very attractive candidate for the first drug to be used in clinical trials in humans and for seeking approval of the first anti-aging drug by FDA.
Professor Gordon Lithgow, aging expert at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, California, and lead researcher in the study, said, “If you target an ageing process and you slow down ageing then you slow down all the diseases and pathology of aging as well. That’s revolutionary. That’s never happened before.”
“I have been doing research into ageing for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about clinical trial in humans for an anti-ageing drug would have been thought inconceivable,” he continued. “But there is every reason to believe it is possible. The future is taking the biology that we’ve developed and applying it to humans.”
Researchers believe that metformin works by boosting availability of oxygen to body cells. This boosts the vigor of cells and prolongs their lifespan.
The potential impact of the success of metformin trials on life expectancy is best put into perspective by considering official statistics which show that average life expectancy in the U.S. in 2012 was 78.8 years, a new record.
Life expectancy for men was 76.4 years, and for females 81.2 years. Life expectancy for girls born today in the U.K. is 82.8 years, and for boys 78.8 years.
There are currently two major categories of theories aging. The first assumes that aging is due to pre-programming of DNA to follow a lifespan timetable. This theory is based on the observation that different living organisms have different spans of life cycle. Some researchers have pointed to the influence of telomere length on life expectancy.
People with longer telomeres have longer life expectancy because the telomeres at the end of the DNA help to protect the coding sequences of the human genome against damage.
Other theories emphasize the cumulative impact of damage due to environmental and physiological factors that cause wear and tear and build up damaging toxins in the system.
[Photo Illustration by David McNew/Getty Images]