The giant monoliths of Easter Island are worn, but they have endured for centuries. New research suggests that a compound first discovered in the soil of the South Pacific island might help us stand the test of time, too.
Wednesday, July 8, in the journal Nature, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and two collaborating centers reported that the Easter Island compound – called “rapamycin” after the island’s Polynesian name, Rapa Nui – extended the expected lifespan of middle-aged mice by 28 percent to 38 percent. In human terms, this would be greater than the predicted increase in extra years of life if cancer and heart disease were both cured and prevented.
The rapamycin was given to the mice at an age equivalent to 60 years old in humans.
The studies are part of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) Interventions Testing Program, which seeks compounds that might help people remain active and disease-free throughout their lives. The other two centers involved are the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.
The Texas study was led by scientists at two institutes at the UT Health Science Center: the Institute of Biotechnology (IBT) and the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.
“I’ve been in aging research for 35 years and there have been many so-called ‘anti-aging’ interventions over those years that were never successful,” said Arlan G. Richardson, Ph.D., director of the Barshop Institute. “I never thought we would find an anti-aging pill for people in my lifetime; however, rapamycin shows a great deal of promise to do just that.”
Discovered in the 1970s, rapamycin was first noted for its anti-fungal properties and later was used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients. It also is used in stents, which are implanted in patients during angioplasty to keep coronary arteries open. It is in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer.
The new aging experiments found that adding rapamycin to the diet of older mice increased their lifespan. The results were the same in Texas, Michigan and Maine.
“We believe this is the first convincing evidence that the aging process can be slowed and lifespan can be extended by a drug therapy starting at an advanced age,” said Randy Strong, Ph.D., who directs the NIA-funded Aging Interventions Testing Center in San Antonio. He is a professor of pharmacology at the UT Health Science Center and a senior research career scientist with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.
The findings have “interesting implications for our understanding of the aging process,” said Z. Dave Sharp, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Biotechnology and professor and chairman of the Health Science Center’s Department of Molecular Medicine.
“In addition,” Dr. Sharp said, “the findings have immediate implications for preventive medicine and human health, in that rapamycin is already in clinical usage.”