Rapamycin gets the spotlight in Bloomberg Businessweek here. This is a look at what’s been set in motion by the 2009 report that the compound notably extended the life of rodents in long-term feeding studies. It’s a good article, and gets some interesting quotes from Mark Fishman of Novartis and many others.
One of the big questions is how rapamycin exerts its effects. It’s certainly an inhibitor of the mTOR pathway (and it was actually used to discover and define it, since the TOR part stands for “target of rapamycin”). That’s going to do a lot, including immune suppression, which is one of the reasons that people are a bit leery of using the drug in otherwise healthy people. However, this study, from late last year, suggested that the closely related everolimus actually improved immune function in elderly human patients, so the last word on this has definitely not been written.
There was a study in 2013 which suggested that the lifespan enhancement seen in rapamycin animal studies was largely (or completely) due to tumor suppression, rather than any general anti-aging effect, but (as this Bloomberg story shows), this is still an open topic. A group at the University of Washington is planning a study in aging dogs that might help answer the question.
What seems certain is that companies are taking on the idea of treating aging more openly. GSK got pretty badly burned with Sirtris and the follow-up from resveratrol, or so it most certainly appears from the outside, but Novartis is clearly interested, and you have AbbVie’s recent deal with Google’s Calico as well. The idea will not be so much as to move right in and say “We’re going to reverse aging”, but to go after diseases associated with aging, whose mechanisms of treatment might be more general. This is partly just prudent practice, and partly regulatory caution, since the FDA has no way to deal with a proposal to treat people who, by current medical definitions, have no disease but are “merely” growing old. With any luck, that “merely” will come to seem odd.
I can’t resist quoting James Blish here (and I couldn’t last time, either). In his 1950s Cities in Flight books, one of the key technologies that made the plot run (along with a handy and vividly described faster-than-light drive), was the discovery of a suite of therapies that nearly prevented aging. Blish himself studied as a biologist, and worked for Pfizer in the 1950s for a while, although not as a scientist. That accounts for a scene early on when a returning space pilot is delivering exotic samples for testing to “Pfiztner”, a large drug company in New York City:
The door closed, leaving Paige once more with nothing to look at but the motto written over the entrance in German black-letter:
Wider den Tod ist kein Kräutlein gewachsen!
Since he did not know the language, he had already translated this by the If-only-it-were-English system, which made it come out “The fatter toad is waxing on the kine’s cole-slaw.” This did not seem to fit what little he knew about the eating habits of either animal, and it was certainly no fit admonition for workers.
That motto, of course, turns out to be an old herbalist saying that “Against Death doth no simple grow”, and the characters in the story are busy proving that to be incorrect. (That’s also a good example of the peculiar things that Blish would drop into his science fiction stories, odd little asides done in omniscient-author voice that give his writing an unmistakeable tone.) We’ll see how prescient he was about the natural products for aging, and if that works out, perhaps we’ll have enough time to start in on the faster-than-light drive.