Pharmaceutical company Novartis says it may be close to developing a drug as a "fountain of youth" capable of holding back the effects seen in aging.

Researchers at the drug company say their studies suggest older people administered a drug that zeroes in on a genetic signaling pathway associated with immune function and aging displayed a significant lift in their immune systems.

The experimental drug, a modified version of a medication known as rapamycin, improved study participants' immune reaction to a flu vaccine by as much as 20 percent, the researchers have reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Rapamycin is a member of a class of drugs called mTOR inhibitors, a type of medication capable of counteracting aging and delaying aging-related diseases in mice and other animals.

Dr. Nir Barzilai, head of the Institute for Aging Research at New York City' Albert Einstein College of Medicine, called the drug study a "watershed" moment in research into aging and health.

The Novartis work is among the first research efforts to show that mTOR drugs can delay the effects of advancing age in humans as well as animals, says Barzilai, who was not involved in the study.

"It sets the stage for using this drug to target aging, to improve everything about aging," he says. "That's really going to be for us a turning point in research, and we are very excited."

The genetic signaling pathway the researchers have been directing their studies at is known to promote healthy development and growth in young mammals but seems to have negative health effects as an individual grows older, says study lead author Dr. Joan Mannick of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.

Drugs such as rapamycin, when utilized to inhibit effects of the mTOR pathway in mice, "seem to extend lifespan and delay the onset of aging-related illnesses," Mannick says.

Mannick expressed caution about whether the Novartis study could lead to medications to boost the immune systems of the elderly, calling it just the "first baby step."

"It's very important to point out that the risk/benefit of MTOR inhibitors should be established in clinical trials before anybody thinks this could be used to treat aging-related conditions," she said.

Barzilai, for his part, was less cautious, saying such studies could lead to a revolution in the manner in which the diseases that present greater risks as we age -- including heart disease, cacder and others -- will be treated.

"Aging is the major risk factor for the killers we're afraid of," he said. "If the aging is the major risk, the way to extend people's lives and improve their health is to delay aging."

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