Medical researchers are developing new kinds of ammunition that could soon be unleashed to fight the war on aging.
Current approaches that target age-related diseases are expected to give way to new methods of getting to their root causes, with therapies that involve work at the cellular level to prevent problems before they start.
Treatment options that are being pursued in the lab are so promising that new anti-aging therapies might only be five to 10 years away – and could be as simple as popping a pill that can rejuvenate cells and keep people healthier longer.
Helping people to live a longer life has been an obvious goal of the medical profession, but researchers say they’re working to help people lead healthier lives while not necessarily extending their lifespan.
“I think it was Thurgood Marshall, one of our Supreme Court justices, who said he wanted to live to 110 and be killed in bed by a jealous husband. You want to be 100 years old and have a heart attack on the golf course, instead of being 60 and limping around,” said Paul Robbins, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Institute-Florida in Jupiter.
Robbins, director of the Institute’s Center on Aging, began working on age-related health issues five years ago, trying to unlock the mysteries of how the human body changes as it gets older. While traditional medicine has focused on treating specific age-related illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, Robbins has taken a different approach.
“There’s more and more data coming out saying that the main cause of whether you develop Type II diabetes or osteoarthritis or cancer or pulmonary disease is the fact that our bodies are aging,” he said. “So, the biggest risk factor for all of these diseases – whether it’s cholesterol levels or whatever – is age.
“I’ve studied all of these diseases individually, and I’ve signed on to the concept that the best way to delay the onset of them is to treat the cause, which is aging itself.”
Robbins and his partner at Scripps, Laura Niedernhofer, an associate professor in the department of metabolism and aging, have been looking into the use of stem cells, diabetes drugs and anti-cancer drugs that could prove effective in ferreting out decaying cells that have been shown to be culprits in aging.
One drug that shows a lot of promise is metformin, which has been around for almost 100 years and is used to lower blood sugar in diabetic patients.
Through the years, doctors and researchers noticed that the drug – which is very low cost since it’s off patent – not only lowered blood sugar but resulted in longer life for those who took it when compared to a control group.
Metformin is showing so much promise that new trials are starting this year. Results should be available within three to five years, and if their theories are verified, metformin could become the world’s first proven anti-aging drug.
Both Robbins and Niedernhofer are already taking metformin proactively even though they do not have diabetes, since Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs can be used for off-label purposes.
“I’m taking it too, because I’ve got to believe in this,” Robbins said. “You have to get a prescription, but a lot of doctors will write you one. I’m not saying metformin is the drug, but it’s going to change the way we do research into aging.”
One of the root causes of aging, according to scientists, is something called cellular senescence. In a nutshell, senescent cells are those that have been damaged to the point where they can no longer divide and produce other healthy cells.
They are not cancerous cells themselves, but they can send out bad information and materials to other parts of the body. The question is how to get rid of the damaged cells without affecting the health ones.
“There’s a new class of drugs people are working on called senolytics, that involves literally killing senescent cells,” said Niedernhofer. A senescent cell is one that has sort of done a self-assessment, and there’s too much damage to make a daughter cell. If you have damage and you make a daughter cell, there’s a high likelihood of mutations, and mutations are what drive cancer.”
Chemotherapy drugs can be “repurposed” to kill off senescent cells, she said, and could be taken by healthy people on a preventive basis – but only occasionally, and not in the kinds of doses that trigger side effects.
“Clinical trials need to be done to determine how much to be given and when,” she said. “Because cancer drugs are potent and have side effects, so you don’t want to take them every day. But it would be logical maybe to take them say, four times a year. The bad cells would be cleared out, and then they’d come back because that’s inevitable. But then they would be cleared out again.”
Stem-cell therapy is another research area with vast potential. Niedernhofer works with mice and has come up with a way to develop mice with a condition called progeria, which causes rapid aging.
Stem cells help rejuvenate the mice, but research mice are closely related and rejection issues are minimal. The same is not true with humans, who need stem cells from their own bodies in order to avoid rejection.
“The problem is that by the time you need them, your own stem cells may not be useful,” Niedernhofer said. “So the push is on to figure out how to get around that.”
One possibility is to freeze stem cells when a person is young to use them later in life. “People ask me, my daughter is having a baby, should we bank their umbilical cord cells? And my answer is yes,” Robbins said. “We don’t know if those are the right stem cells yet, but there’s a chance they could be.”
The most likely scenario is an anti-aging regimen that combines several different drugs and other approaches.
Other researchers are studying “super-centenarians” – people who have lived to at least 105 – to see if anything stands out genetically. Once particular genes have been identified, therapies can be developed that adjust a person’s own genes in order to achieve a longer life.
Maximum lifespan is thought to be about 115, but that’s “a debatable number,” according to Robbins. “My goal is not to have people live longer, my goal is to keep them healthy longer.”
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