Having a pill that can make you live longer has long been something of a myth, or a hypothetical that plays out in television and movies. But there’s new research that shows this may no longer just be the thing of popular fiction, and Dr. Nir Barzilai is working on solidifying the answer.
Barzilai is an anti-aging researcher from Israel who does a lot of his work out of the Center for Biology of Human Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, among other institutions. Barzilai has spent much of the last three decades researching a drug called metformin. Through his work in the 1980s, he helped develop the drug as treatment for type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. (The University of California-San Francisco calls it “the most frequently prescribed medication for type 2 diabetes world wide.”)
But what Barzilai later found was monumental.
The Origins of Metformin and Where It’s Going
For diabetic purposes, metformin helps return blood sugar to normal levels. Essentially, it decreases the amount of sugar your body absorbs from food. But metformin’s root is in a plant called French lilac. This plant, also known as goat’s rue, has been used for centuries for its medicinal purposes outside of diabetes—a disease not exactly known in the 1600s.
Over time, patients who have been prescribed metformin to treat diabetes as opposed to other leading treatments have also experienced an overall healthier life, living longer and having a decreased likelihood of suffering from maladies like:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Heart disease
“Metformin may have already saved more people from cancer deaths than any drug in history,” said Lewis Cantley, a doctor at the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. And that’s not what it was trying to even do.
It isn’t proven that metformin is an anticancer drug, though. As a 2017 WIRED profile of Barzilai pointed out, there are plenty of holes in the argument that metformin can cure cancer. The drug may provide some benefits to combating the disease, but it isn’t a be-all end-all of fighting cancer. (In two studies of advanced pancreatic cancer, metformin didn’t help qualm the disease at all, the WIRED piece noted.)
For years, there have been a slew of recommended anti-aging techniques that haven’t quite concretely been able to prove that they make you live longer. These habits and recommendations have come in a range of suggestions like:
- Dietary (eating better)
- Cosmetic (surgery to change)
- Physical activity (working out more)
- Blood transfusions (replacing older blood with blood from younger, healthier humans)
There’s hope that metformin can actually provide stable, trustworthy evidence that there are scientific ways to combat aging. The problem is that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t exactly view “aging” as a medical condition. But that’s where Barzilai’s new study—Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME)—comes in.
The Hope Associated With Metformin
According to TAME’s website, the study, if it proves the drug really has anti-aging qualities, could open the door for an entire industry of research and drug development for anti-aging. “We MUST do the trial first which will open the door to FDA approval of aging as an indicator, as well as to the development of new drugs that will target aging,” the site explained.
Then, anti-aging drugs can be classified as treating a disease and thus ultimately covered by insurance. “Within five minutes” of a meeting with the FDA, “we were all in complete agreement that this is plausible” and that researching the effects of metformin is “a good idea,” said S. Jay Olshansky, one of Barzilai’s colleagues.
The TAME study will include “approximately 3,000 men and women between the ages of 65 and 79 at 14 centers across the country” over the course of five years. The study costs nearly $70 million and is being partly funded by the National Institutes of Health. “What we really are after is the ability of metformin to delay age-related disease” like cancer and cardiovascular disease, Barzilai said in a NBC Today profile. He pointed out that if metformin can be proven to combat those age-related diseases by two to three years, then that could save Americans up to $7 trillion in healthcare costs by 2050.
Barzilai’s work has become so recognized, it’s earned him an invitation to the Vatican—twice. In 2016, Barzilai visited the papal location for a conference on cellular therapies, and it was attended by the likes of the Pope and former Vice President Joe Biden. He brought his research—and his plans for future development—to the conference in search of funding, but he didn’t quite get the opportunity to ask for it, according to the WIRED. The industry of aging research has, though.
The industry has seen investments from the likes of Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The money flowing into the industry is a good sign for Barzalai and his research (he must be doing something right), and for Americans as a whole.
Many of these drugs can turn out to be very affordable, too. Metformin costs just 5 cents per pill, and that’s cheaper than almost any prescription drug out there. This plays in wonderfully to Americans health concerns, as they may eventually be able to maximize their healthy years.
Patients who have been prescribed metformin to treat diabetes as opposed to other leading treatments have also experienced an overall healthier life, living longer and having a decreased likelihood of suffering from maladies.