Tech execs are turning to prescription pills like metformin and rapamycin to slow aging.
These drugs tame "zombie cells" which can contribute to age-related diseases.
New drugs could clear harmful zombie cells from the body – but research is still ongoing.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, age 38, is already curious about uncovering the secrets of anti-aging.
The ChatGPT tech exec— whose company is worth close to $30 billion— is vegetarian, exercises regularly, and he takes metformin, a cheap diabetes drug that has been co-opted by biohackers hoping to extend their lifespan.
Metformin is among a class of drugs called "senomorphics," pills that are showing promise taming aging cells known as senescent cells. These are cells in the body that have stopped multiplying, yet don't die—earning them the nickname "zombie cells."
Rapamycin is another old drug that scientists are studying for its effects on zombie cells. But it's still unclear whether targeting and eliminating these cells is something we can safely do.
Zombie cells can wreak havoc on aging bodies
Zombie cells are unique in the body: While they no longer divide like normal cells, they are still active, releasing molecules that can trigger inflammation. This type of cell isn't inherently bad; some senescent cells act as critical defense mechanisms against cancer, and they can also contribute to proper wound healing, even helping out with embryo development.
But as we age, these zombie cells build up in the body, and their secretions can begin to contribute to a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis, lung, and kidney issues. They've long been a target of researchers who believe that eliminating them — in very targeted ways — could be a new way to slow down aging.
One day, drugs could flush zombie cells out of the body completely
In addition to repurposing old drugs like metformin and rapamycin — which tamp down zombie cell secretions — scientists are also working on repurposing other existing drugs into new drug combinations called "senolytics," to essentially flush some zombie cells right out of the body.
Dr. James Kirkland, an anti-aging zombie cell researcher at the Mayo Clinic, has tested out a cancer drug called dasatinib in concert with a plant compound called quercetin on mice, and (in some very small trials) on people.
Mice treated with this drug combo lived longer and healthier lives. And people with an age-related lung disease who tried the combo over a period of three weeks could walk faster, and get up out of a chair more easily at the end of the study period, Kirkland told Insider.
But the combo needs a lot more testing before it can be considered safe for everybody.
"These drugs aren't something the general public should be taking," Kirkland said. "They're not meant for prevention. What we're using them for is in very serious conditions."
He's hopeful that "over the next five years some of these things may work for some conditions," like untreatable cancers, including glioblastoma.
For the rest of us, Kirkland says "things like exercise and dieting can reduce senescent cell burden as well."
"The trouble is people won't do it," he said. "There's going to need to be a point where the right interventions are chosen for the right person, using the right guidelines."
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