Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s. Diabetes. Cancer. Heart disease. These days, it’s hard to escape talk of the diseases that could be the death of us. Or is it? Maybe all of those scary illnesses don’t actually have to be as threatening as they once were.
Anti-aging drugs are the newest horizon in pharmaceuticals, and a drug called metformin will be tested in human trials in the U.S. as an anti-aging pill for the first time next year. The drug was originally meant to address diabetes, and has been used successfully in that manner already. However, researchers discovered that metformin is also effective at extending lifespan in test animals and anecdotally in humans. Testing the drug officially on humans is the next step in figuring out whether metformin really is the miracle it poses to be.
If the drug tests successfully as an anti-aging pharmaceutical, it has potential to help humans live to the age of 120 or longer. Scientists think that the drug augments lifespan by increasing the number of oxygen molecules released in a cell, which can make it stronger and more long-lived. Theories of what causes aging in the first place vary widely. Some scientists think that it has to do with DNA being programmed to a certain lifecycle. Others view telomere length (the ends of DNA) as the determining factor. And yet different researchers believe that aging is caused simply by the accumulation of stressors and chemicals over time.
One can’t help but think of a science fiction novel when hearing about the new use of metformin. If successful, it could mean that we start to see aging as a disease itself that can be “fixed” with medicine. Could mass production of an anti-aging pill lead to inequality in the future based on who can afford to purchase the drug? It’s still too early to say of course, since researchers first have to confirm that the medicine works in humans specifically for that purpose.
So why is this particular drug moving forward with trials and not another? Well, actually several companies have invested in searching for an anti-aging medicine. Strategies range from stem cell therapies to drugs that target specific illnesses that affect older individuals, such as Parkinson’s. However, metformin might be the one moving forward currently because it is already known to be “safe” for use in treating diabetes, while other anti-aging drugs are new. Regardless of the reason metformin is moving forward, it’s clear that the world will be holding its breath waiting for its results.
Stefani is a writer and urban planner based in Oakland, CA. She holds a master’s in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in Human Biology from Stanford University. In her free time she is often found reading diverse literature, writing stories, or enjoying the outdoors. Follow her on Twitter:@stefanicox