Scientists believe the common diabetes drug metformin could hold the secret of long life and want to start a groundbreaking human trial in 2016.
The world’s first anti-ageing drug will be tested on humans next year in trials which could see diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s consigned to distant memory.
Scientists now believe that it is possible to actually stop people growing old as quickly and help them live in good health well into their 110s and 120s.
Although it might seem like science fiction, researchers have already proven that the diabetes drug metformin extends the life of animals, and the Food and Drug Administration in the US has now given the go ahead for a trial to see if the same effects can be replicated in humans.
If successful it will mean that a person in their 70s would be as biologically healthy as a 50 year old. It could usher in a new era of ‘geroscience’ where doctors would no longer fight individual conditions like cancer, diabetes and dementia, but instead treat the underlying mechanism – ageing.
Scottish ageing expert Professor Gordon Lithgow of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing in California, is one of the study advisors.
“If you target an ageing process and you slow down ageing then you slow down all the diseases and pathology of ageing as well,” he said “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 a clinical trial in humans for an anti-ageing drug would have been though inconceivable.
“But there is every reason to believe it’s possible. The future is taking the biology that we’ve now developed and applying it to humans. 20 years ago ageing was a biological mystery. Now we are starting to understand what is going on.”
Ageing is not an inevitable part of life because all cells contain a DNA blueprint which could keep a body functioning correctly forever. Some marine creatures do not age at all.
However over our lifetime billions of cell divisions must occur to keep our bodies functioning correctly and the more times cells divide the more errors creep into the process. As cell problems grow, the body can no longer repaid damage. In the case of cancer, cells no longer have the ability to get rid of mutations, and tumours grow. In Alzheimer’s the brain stops clearing out sticky plaques, and dementia develops.
Scientists think the best candidate for an anti-ageing drug is metformin, the world’s most widely used diabetes drug which costs just 10p a day. Metformin increases the number of oxygen molecules released into a cell, which appears to boost robustness and longevity.
When Belgian researchers tested metformin on the tiny roundworm C.elegans the worms not only aged slower, but they also stayed healthier longer. They did not slow down or develop wrinkles. Mice treated withmetformin increased their lifespan by nearly 40 per cent and their bones were also stronger. Last year Cardiff University found that when patients with diabetes were given the drug metformin they in fact lived longer than others without the condition, even though they should have died eight years earlier on average.
The new clinical trial called Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME, is scheduled to begin in the US next winter. Scientists from a range of institutions are currently raising funds and recruiting 3,000 70 to 80 year olds who have, or are risk of, cancer, heart disease and dementia. They are hoping to show that drug slows the ageing process and stops disease.
Outlining the new study on the National Geographic documentary Breakthrough: The Age of Ageing, Dr Jay Olshansky, of the University of Illinois Chicago, said: “If we can slow ageing in humans, even by just a little bit it would be monumental. People could be older, and feel young.
“Enough advancements in ageing science have been made to lead us to believe it’s plausible, it’s possible, it’s been done for other species and there is every reason to believe it could be done in us.
“This would be the most important medical intervention in the modern era, an ability to slow ageing.”
A baby girl born today is now expected to life to an average age of 82.8 years and a boy to 78.8 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. But if the results seen in animals are reproduced in humans, lifespan could increase by nearly 50 per cent.
Professor Lithgow believes that, in the future, young people may be given a type of ageing ‘vaccine’ to slow down ageing. He believes it could have a far bigger impact on extending population lifespan that finding a cure for cancer.
“If we were to cure all cancers it would only raise life expectancy by around three years, because something else is coming behind the cancer, but if we could slow down the ageing process you could dramatically improve how long people can live,” he said.
“We know that it is possible for handfuls of people to live to very old age and still be physically and socially active, so clearly they carry some kind of protection in their bodies. They are essentially not ageing as quickly. If we can harness that, then everyone can achieve those lifespans.”
Yet scientists have faced an uphill battle to get trial approval because there are so many spurious claims of ‘anti-ageing’ technologies and therapies on the market.
Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research in New York, who is also involved in the trial added: “The perception is that we are all looking for a fountain of youth.
“We want to avoid that; what we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.”
However if their trial performs as promised, experts say slowing ageing would be a ‘public health revolution.’
Dr Robert Temple, deputy director of the FDA said: “Their hope is that a wide variety of age related problems, loss of muscle tone, dizziness, falls, dementia, loss of eyesight, all of those things.
“That would be something never done before. If you really are doing something to alter ageing the population of interest is everybody. It surely would be revolutionary if they can bring it off.”
Dr Simon Melov of the Buck Institute for Ageing Research added: “You’re talking about developing a therapy for a biological phenomenon which is universal and gives rise to all of these diseases. And if you’ve got a therapy for this thing, these diseases just go away.”