Metformin could significantly increase life expectancy and health in old age - human trials planned
If the effects are the same in humans as they have been in animal studies, it may be possible for people to live healthily into their 120s. Metformin could also be used to slow or prevent the development of diseases related to aging, such as some cases of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimers disease, which is associated with diabetes.
"If you target an aging process and you slow down aging then you slow down all the diseases and pathology of aging as well," said Professor Gordon Lithgow, of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California, one of the study's advisors.
"I have been doing research into aging for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-aging drug would have been thought inconceivable.
"But there is every reason to believe it's possible," Lithgow continued. "The future is taking the biology that we've now developed an applying it to humans. 20 years ago aging was a biological mystery. Now we are starting to understand what is going on."
Several studies have indicated that the lifespan of animals increases when they are given metformin. Belgian researchers tested metformin on the roundworm C.elegans. The worms aged at a slower rate, and stayed healthier for longer. When metformin was given to mice, they lived almost 40 per cent longer than they would naturally; their bone strength also increased.
Last year, researchers from Cardiff University found that diabetes patients who were given metformin tended to live longer than those who were not given metformin. This was not just because they had better blood glucose control - their life expectancy improved in comparison to other people with diabetes who were given other diabetes drugs; blood glucose control did not affect the improvements in lifespan noted in the metformin group.
Dr. Jay Olshanksy, of the University of Illinois, Chicago, said: "If we can slow aging in humans, even by just a little bit it would be monumental. People could be older, and feel young.
"Enough advancements in aging 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 aging."
The trial, which is called Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME, is scheduled for next winter. Participants are currently being recruited, with the researchers aiming to test metformin on around 3,000 70 to 80 years olds who have or at high risk of cancer, dementia and heart disease.
Dr. Lithgow believes that, should the metformin trial be successful, it would be a more significant medical breakthrough than 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 aging process you could dramatically improve how long people can live," said Lithgow.
"We know that it is possible for handfuls of people 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 aging as quickly. If we can harness that, then everyone can achieve those lifespans."
Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Foundation for Aging Research in New York, clarified that the study is aiming first and foremost to increase the health of people as they get older, rather than simply trying to add years to a life that may be riddled with ill health. Lederman said: "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."
Dr. Robert Temple, deputy director of the US Food and Drug Administration, explained: "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 aging the population of interest is everybody. It surely would be revolutionary if they can bring it off."
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