What if you could take a “magical pill” and stay young forever? Sounds like a fantasy, right? Because no matter what, ageing is inevitable. And still, since the beginning of time, mankind has been seeking the “ultimate elixir” that could help them live longer. Folklores all around the globe are filled with such stories of fiction.
But that might be about to come true.
Many tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are eagerly investing in start-ups that aim to “bio-hack” the process of ageing. One drug called Metformin has recently become popular among celebrities for its “anti-ageing” properties. It has become sensationally popular over social media splitting people into two groups – one that wholeheartedly believes in its anti-ageing effects and the other that is skeptical about it.
What is Metformin?
It’s a drug with the most dramatic history of discovery and then rediscovery. Hundreds of years ago in medieval Europe, Galega officinalis was widely used as a medicinal herb to cure urinary problems and other ailments related to digestive health.
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In 1918, one of its components, Guanidine, was found to be effective in lowering blood sugar levels. As a result, drugs like metformin and phenformin were developed from the extracted guanidine to treat diabetes. But then the discovery of Insulin and the serious side effects of phenformin led to the use of these drugs being stopped.
Decades later in the 1950s, metformin was rediscovered and started being used as a treatment for diabetes. Since then, it has been the most widely prescribed drug to type 2 diabetes patients who cannot control their sugar levels simply by dieting and exercising.
The Marvels of Metformin
Apart from being an excellent antidiabetic drug, metformin is also known for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic and immunomodulatory properties. It is a wonder drug for diabetes patients as it offers so many additional benefits other than lowering blood sugar levels.
It can help in overcoming weight gain and reduces early mortality caused by ailments like cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline and even cancer. As per recent studies, it can also reduce the risk of arthritis in diabetic patients. In other words, diabetic patients on metformin have a 30% lower risk of getting the aforementioned diseases than other people.
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Even after imparting so many protective effects, its side effects are mild including nausea, stomach pain or diarrhoea. More serious side effects are very rare to occur. However, they include allergic reactions or accumulation of lactic acid in the bloodstream, a condition called lactic acidosis. People with kidney-related ailments are usually more prone to these serious effects therefore, they are never prescribed metformin.
On top of being a drug that comes with so many effective health-related benefits and so few side effects, it is also quite affordable and readily available.
Since it is a low-cost and safe drug, people are enthusiastically taking it. Its popularity has expanded as a result of a recent wave of social media attention, including a viral posting by Silicon Valley-based online entrepreneur Serge Fague, who reported taking two grams of the medicine every day to deal with ageing. Even the man behind Chat GPT, Sam Altman is a fan of this drug and consumes it as a daily supplement to live longer.
What do the scientific studies say about the “anti-ageing effects” of metformin?
In diabetic patients, metformin not only lowers blood sugar levels, but it also enhances responsiveness towards insulin, exerts antioxidant effects and improves blood vessel health. In this way, it indirectly stalls death by improving healthspan and elonging the years of life spent in good health. However, whether this drug provides similar protective benefits to non-diabetic people is still under scientific investigation.
Animal trials on yeast, roundworms and mice have suggested that metformin promisingly extends their lifespans and healthspans. Skin ageing in the form of wrinkles is the first indication of ageing and evidence collected from experimental studies has indicated the potential anti-ageing effects of metformin on skin.
This has prompted the initiation of clinical trials like MILES(Metformin In Longevity Study) and TAME(Targeting Aging with Metformin) to investigate metformin’s anti ageing effects on humans. Early analysis of MILES data suggests that metformin may generate anti-ageing transcriptional changes; nevertheless, whether metformin is protective in healthy patients remains debatable.
American federation for ageing research (AFAR) is planning to launch the TAME trial which will target 3000 individuals between 65-80 years of age group to conduct their study and produce results within 6 years. This clinical trial aims at proving that ageing is “treatable” just like diseases. Ageing is the major risk that leads to serious diseases like cardiovascular problems, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease etc.
“Treating one disease at a time, the most you can expect is to exchange one disease for another. If somebody gets a heart disease like myocardial infarction and they get it treated, after two or three years they are getting diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer’s and that is because we never treated or thought of treating their ageing, just one disease in the time,” said Dr Nir Barzilai, an MD and the scientific director of AFAR in his TedMed talk while explaining the promise of the TAME trial. “ We are going to show how metformin changes the rate of ageing”, he further added.
Living forever might be an impossible case for mankind to achieve but delaying death could be in our hands. If we could extend the number of healthy years of our lifespan, then it would be possible for us to easily live up to the age of 80, even though biologically our bodies would be only 60 years old. Scientists are proactively looking for means to make it a reality. Whether Metformin is that means or not, still requires more research.
Nevertheless, Immortality may be a far-fetched fantasy for us, but we may be able to achieve longevity. And as Nir Barzilai said in his TedMed talk – “It’s not science fiction anymore, it’s science now”.
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