Streptomyces hygroscopicus is a bacterium which was discovered by Suren Sehgal in dirt. The most intriguing factor of this bacterium is that it secreted an anti-fungal compound which was purified and named ‘rapamycin‘ by Sehgal. Besides being an antifungal, rapamycin also suppressed the immune system.
Cutting to the chase on how rapamycin is associated with anti-ageing, this compound is being used increasingly as a coating for cardiac stents to prevent scarring and its derivatives for lung and breast cancers. Research on rapamycin over the past decade has shown that rapamycin has the potential to not only delay ageing but also the onset of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancers and heart diseases.
Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceuticals, has adopted Sehgal’s brain child to create their version of rapamycin as an anti-ageing drug. Scientists view rapamycin as a preventive medicine against ageing, which is considered to be a contributing factor for age-related diseases. So far, it is demonstrated that rapamycin can lengthen the lives of mice, not humans, but what’s particularly exciting is how it does so.
The drug appears to delay “age-related decline in multiple organ systems, which is something we would expect, if we were fundamentally slowing the aging process.” says Matt Kaeberlein, a scientist at the University of Washington. And as there are believers, there are non-believers too, who think that the interventions to stop or delay ageing are not documented in humans and that it is really vital to understand the molecular processes that drive ageing and evaluate the safety and efficacy of the interventions against ageing.
The Novartis study on rapamycin has shown that it reduces age-induced bone loss, reverses cardiac ageing and reverses Alzheimer’s disease in mice and has also examined the effects of rapamycin on age- related parameters in healthy elderly subjects. Novartis is intending to use very low doses of the drug in order to overcome the immune-suppression side effects in their upcoming clinical trial using middle-aged pet dogs. “I love my dogs,” Kaeberlein says. “If there’s anything we can do to make them live longer, healthier lives, we have to do it. I feel like I personally have to do this.”
Novartis is keen on taking incremental approach towards the ageing research using rapamycin, reason being that the FDA might not approve a drug that could treat “ageing”, which is not considered a disease. Though it’s far too early to conclude if very low dose rapamycin can prolong human life, it is definitely in the pipeline of Novartis to exploit on a drug that could potentially restore muscle loss or ageing joints.
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