Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses share a single common risk factor: aging. Drugs that slow or reverse biological features of aging could help prevent or treat many age-related diseases. The prospect of taking one pill to prevent many diseases is now one step closer to becoming a reality. The FDA has given the greenlight for scientists to test the diabetes drug metformin in older adults with the goal of forestalling may age-related diseases.
Dr. Nir Barzilai at Albert Einstein College of Medicine recently announced that he and colleagues are seeking funding for a clinical trial—the first of its kind— aimed at delaying and preventing many diseases associated with old age. The TAME trial (or Targeting Aging with Metformin) will test the drug metformin in older adults who either have cancer, heart disease, or cognitive impairment or are at risk for these diseases. The goal is to treat 3,000 volunteers aged 70 to 80 years for 5 to 7 years and see if their development of other diseases is delayed. If successful, this would be the first demonstration in humans that a single drug can delay the onset of multiple age-related diseases and may indicate that metformin actually slows human aging.
Metformin has been in use for 60 years to treat diabetes. It has a good safety record and is the first-line treatment for type II diabetes. It works by reducing glucose production in the liver and increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Studies show that metformin extends lifespan and lowers the risk of age-related diseases in experimental mice, worms, and flies. And preliminary results from human observational studies suggest people with diabetes who take metformin may see similar benefits.
If you’re thinking of taking a dip in the fountain of youth, don’t put on your swim suit just yet. Almost all the evidence for benefit has come from people with type II diabetes. We don’t yet know if people without that disease will show similar results. But even if metformin doesn’t have wider benefits, the TAME trial could pave the way for testing other, more effective drugs for aging. It signals FDA recognition that targeting aging biology is a valid approach to protect against a variety of age-related diseases, which in turn could spur much-needed research into new drugs to slow age-related processes.
For now, the researchers need to raise about $50 million to conduct the TAME trial. If it does move forward and is successful, the trial could fundamentally change how we think about and treat age-related diseases. Even if we can’t swim laps in the fountain of youth, we might still dip our toes in.
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