“May you stay forever young.” – Bob Dylan
Naked mole rats aren’t much to look at. In fact, you might think the pink, wrinkly, squinty rodents are downright ugly. However, some researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio feel otherwise (“I think they are incredibly cute,” says Zimbabwe-born scientist Rochelle Buffenstein as she tenderly picks up one of thousands squeaking and scurrying through a maze of tubes and plastic tubs). But it’s not for their outward appearance that scientists are studying the rodents. Buffenstein and others look beyond the translucent skin and healthy tusks (“They’ve been called saber tooth sausages and worse,” she says) and see, if not the secret to eternal youth, a chance to cobble a few more decades onto our average 78-year lifespan. That would explain why the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the UTHSC-SA maintains the world’s largest colony of the naked rats. While not much larger than mice, which live around two years, these creatures keep active and healthy for as long as 30 years. And they have an amazing ability to fight cancer and toxins.
This is just one of many areas of anti-aging research that’s underway at the San Antonio research center. There’s hope that scientists here will find a trigger or series of triggers in the human genetic code that could one day extend the “youthspan” of people — giving people an extra 20 years, 40 years, maybe even longer, to be young and healthy. To be flip about it: researchers are hunting for the Fountain of Youth. And they’re closing in. Discoveries are coming in at such a pace that Gen Xers may find themselves saddled with the Baby Boomers for longer than they had planned.
THE YOUTH PILL
There are many areas of promising anti-aging research being developed at Barshop. The drug rapamycin is one that excites Dr. Arlan Richardson, director of the Barshop Institute. The compound was discovered in the soil of Easter Island and has typically been used as a drug for transplant patients to avoid organ rejection. But the Barshop scientists found it also extended the life of mice.
In a study published in the summer of 2009 in the international weekly journal Nature, Barshop researchers and collaborators reported that older mice given rapamycin lived longer and healthier lives than mice that didn’t receive the drug.
The female mice that received rapamycin were 13-percent older at death while males lived 9-percent longer on the drug. That might not sound like much to cynics. But take note: the mice also live healthier.
So why aren’t we rushing out right now to get a bottle of rapamycin pills? As Richardson reminds me, it’s already on the market. But researchers are cautious about their findings (they don’t know, for instance, if it works in people as it does in mice or what dosage would be appropriate), that hasn’t stopped word of rapamycin’s “miracle” benefits reaching internet-based marketers. And, yes, like many drugs on the market, there are side effects. Rapamycin is an immunosuppressant, making users susceptible to opportunistic infections.
STARVING TO STAY YOUNG
If you need proof that Dr. Edward Masoro knows something about beating old age you only have to talk to him. The 86-year-old scientist is one of the world’s leading authorities on longevity and caloric restriction in anti-aging.
In his King William home, Masoro has research materials and medical journals scattered around his front room study. “We know that caloric restriction works in extending the life of lab rats. But in people we don’t know,” he said.
Caloric restriction is based on reducing food consumption without reduction in adequate nutrition. In experimental animals, caloric restriction has been shown to extend lifespan and enhance the quality of health. Masoro said he had a rat on CR that doubled its lifespan, but “one day it just dropped dead.” The researchers weren’t able to figure out why the rat gave up its ghost. “And these rats look good,” Masoro said, praising their nice-looking coats and abundant energy — even in their bonus years.
Even though there is no scientific evidence that CR will help people live longer, there are plenty of folks willing to cut back on calories to find out. “I’ve been to their meetings and these people look thin, healthy, and fit,” Masoro said.
He was invited to speak at one group’s banquet — the spread of which, Masoro recalled, wasn’t much to speak of. “They eat a lot of greens — very little meat.”
Debate continues about what makes CR work. Masoro believes a “famine effect” inspires the cells to work harder to repair themselves and more efficiently flush out garbage proteins.
But what the pharmaceutical industry dreams of is a pill that would give the body the benefits of CR without forcing people to give up All-You-Can-Eat night at the Golden Feedbag Café. “This is so complex and so many factors are at work that it’s going to be a long time before that’s possible,” said Masoro.
YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?
There’s no denying that the pace of scientific discovery has been steadily accelerating. Just look at how long it takes for the latest sci-fi inspired gadget in your life to become as obsolete as the rotary phone. It is becoming apparent that anti-aging research is on a similar pace. If you want to live forever, you don’t need a researcher to find that magic elixir tomorrow. Researchers only need to come up with a treatment that will add 10 to 20 years to your lifespan. In those bonus years, science could come up with more youth-giving discoveries that will keep adding more years to your life. If that cycle continues, who knows how long a person could live.
But there is a trick. You’ve got to stay healthy long enough to catch that first wave of life-extending science. And Richardson said it doesn’t take a thousand naked mole rats or millions of dollars in research grants to tell you the best way to have a long and healthy life. “Don’t smoke, take care of yourself, and wear your seatbelt is the best advice,” Richardson said. Life extension miracles are coming but are still years away, he said.
What used to be considered a crazy quest based on the denial of the inevitable, defying the ravages of time on the human body is now seen as possible, perhaps even necessary. “It was just days ago that the first of the Baby Boomers turned 65, and more and more are coming,” said Richardson. As the U.S. population ages, it also grows more feeble. It’s going to take a lot of resources to take care of this growing population of old people. Imagine if we didn’t need armies of young people going into the nursing profession, for instance. They could turn their attention instead to … well, refining that Everlasting Gobstopper of Youth. •