A cheap and safe pill taken by millions of diabetics could hold the secret of a long and healthy life.
Research by British scientists suggests that metformin, which costs as little as two pence a tablet, could extend human life span.
The drug may also be able to keep us physically agile and mentally sharp in old age. If that wasn’t enough, it may also stop us from piling on the pounds.
Professor Dominic Withers, of University College London, said: ‘This suggests it would be possible to establish drugs for the treatment of ageing.
‘That opens up the really exciting opportunity to prevent the diseases of ageing.’
The researchers took their inspiration from studies on worms, flies and dogs that showed those on very low calorie diets tend to live longer, healthier lives.
To create the same effect, without the need for dieting, they created designer mice unable to make a key protein called S6K1.
Both sexes were healthier – but the effects were most dramatic in the female mice, which also lived longer.
Their lifespan increased by an average of 20 per cent. But a few lucky creatures clocked up 1,201 days – or an increase of more than 50 per cent, the journal Science reports.
In essence, he explained, researchers have found a “mechanism” connected to the benefits of eating little that could be manipulated by existing medications. “We are therefore closer to treatments for aging and age-related diseases,” he said.
At issue is finding a way to replicate the benefits of a severely restricted diet. But, keeping extremely tight control on eating can be “arduous” on a long-term basis, Withers acknowledged.
Female mice lived for an average of 950 days, 19 percent longer than usual, were skinnier and had stronger bones. They appeared to be better protected against type 2 diabetes and also appeared to be smarter: They were more “inquisitive and exploratory,” Withers noted.
“Even their T cells, an important part of the immune system, appeared more ‘youthful,’ implying slowing of the usual age decline in immunity,” he said.
The males didn’t live longer but reaped other health benefits enjoyed by the females, Withers said, noting the cause of the lifespan difference is unclear.
Matt Kaeberlein, an assistant professor of pathology at the University of Washington in Seattle, said these and other new findings are shifting “the prevailing opinion among scientists working in this area [of life extension] from ‘if’ to ‘when.’” That theory is supported by other recent life-extension research involving a drug called rapamycin and confirmation that diet restriction helps monkeys live longer, he noted.
“Most of us believe that anti-aging drugs are possible and are going to be developed from studies such as these,” said Kaeberlein, co-author of a commentary accompanying the study.
So, what’s next? Withers said a diabetes drug called metformin, which is marketed as Glucophage, Glumetza and Fortamet, might mimic the effects of the genetic engineering in the mice.