About time! Drug that halts ageing ‘will be ready in two years’
The drugs, or senolytics, prevent or alleviate most age-related illnesses and frailty, scientists say
With its podgy body, tired eyes and fur loss, the mouse could easily be the father of the sprightly and alert animal alongside. But they are the same age, the result of extraordinary trials of drugs that are slowing or even reversing the ageing process.
Scientists believe that ageing itself is responsible for many major conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. And they think they have found a way to turn it off.
Anti-ageing drugs, or senolytics, are being trialled in humans, and unlike previous tests, which have focused on a single disease, these drugs work like a broad-spectrum antibiotic, preventing or alleviating most age-related illnesses and frailty.
Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have six trials in humans under way and plan to start six more. If successful, they estimate that drugs to slow down ageing could be ready within two years. In mice, the drugs extend lifespan by 36%, the equivalent of about 30 human years, and the animals remained in good health.
Clinical geriatrician Dr James Kirkland, director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Centre on Ageing at the clinic, said: “Most people don’t want to live to 130 and feel like they’re 130, but they wouldn’t mind living to 90 and feel like they’re 60. And now that can actually be achieved in animals.”
“Ageing itself is the highest risk factor for most of the chronic diseases. And if you get one age-related disease, you’ve got a huge chance of having several. You tend to find older individuals who are completely healthy and are playing 18 rounds of golf a day, or they’ve got three, five or 10 different conditions. There aren’t too many people in between.
“Therefore, if you targeted fundamental ageing processes it might be possible to delay, prevent or alleviate chronic conditions as a group, instead of going after them one at a time. It’s much more like developing an antibiotic. Antibiotics will treat 25 different conditions. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
The senolytic drugs target senescent cells, also known as “zombie cells”. These form from normal cells that have stopped dividing, but instead of dying and being cleared away, they begin pumping out damaging chemicals which harm healthy cells. Senescent cells accumulate with age, caused by the stresses of life, and scientists now believe that, at a critical threshold, they trigger disease.
Zombie cells cluster around the lesions that cause heart attacks and strokes, in the bones of people with osteoporosis, in the joints of arthritis sufferers, and in the fat tissue of diabetics. Scientists have shown that if they transplant zombie cells into young animals, they begin to age, and develop age-related disease. But importantly, the ageing can be reversed by senolytic drugs.
It was also recently demonstrated that in tissue samples of obese human diabetics, senolytic drugs made fat cells sensitive to insulin again.
The Mayo Clinic has joined seven other research institutions across the US to form the Translational Geroscience Network, which will carry out urgent trials into the drugs. Kirkland added: “With a single intervention it might be possible now to affect healthspan and lifespan.”
Senolytic success: the development of age-reversing drugs
2004: Research by Professor Ned Sharpless, now head of the US Food and Drug Administration, showed how senescence can be delayed through a calorie-restricted diet that also slowed ageing;
2005: The Mayo Clinic starts testing the hypothesis that getting rid of zombie cells can stave off problems of old age;
2011: The same clinic shows for the first time that killing off zombie cells prevents some signs of old age in mice;
2015: Details of the first senolytic drugs, which can delay, alleviate or reverse age-related diseases, are published;
2019: In the first pilot human trials, drugs are found to reduce frailty in people with chronic conditions.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)