Although recent data has shown the coronavirus poses a greater risk to young people than previously understood, the ensuing COVID-19 disease is clearly far more dangerous for older people than it is for the young.
While our older adults have accrued tremendous knowledge, wisdom, and perspective over the years, their bodies have over time become less able to fight off viruses and other insults. The shorthand name for this increased susceptibility is aging.
We may have different names for the diseases which disproportionately kill us — cancer, heart disease, and dementia among them – but what is really killing us is age. The older we are, the greater the chance we’ll die from one or another of these afflictions. Eliminate any one completely – including cancer – and we won’t on average live that much longer. But if we slow aging on a cellular level, we can counter all of these diseases at once, including COVID-19.
Every army needs both offensive and defensive capabilities. In our war against COVID-19, our offense strategy is to fight the virus directly. But strengthening our defense requires making us all more resistant to its danger. That’s why everyone needs to be eating well, exercising, and remaining socially connected. But if we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach. That’s where our new fight against this disease and the emerging science of aging intersect.
Once the domain of charlatans and delusionists, the millennia-old fantasy of extending our healthy lifespans has over the past century become real. But while the big jump in longevity around the world over the past hundred years or so is mostly attributable to advances in sanitation, nutrition, basic healthcare, and worker safety, advances over the next hundred will come from our increasing ability to hack the biology of aging itself.
A few decades ago, scientists began recognizing that some laboratory animals on calorie-restricted diets tended to live healthier, longer lives. Through careful experiments derived from these types of insights, scientists began identifying specific genetic, epigenetic, and metabolic pathways that influence how we age. A range of studies have recently suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off diseases and viral attacks.
Among the most promising of these systemic interventions is a drug called metformin, which targets many of the hallmarks of aging and extends health span and lifespan in animals. Metformin has been around since the Middle Ages and has been used in Europe for over 60 years to treat diabetes. This five-cent pill became the most prescribed drug in the world after being approved by the FDA in 1994.
With so many people taking it, ever larger studies began suggesting metformin’s positive potential effects preventing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and dementia. In fact, elderly people on metformin for their diabetes have around a 20 percent lower mortality than age-matched subjects without diabetes. Results like these led scientists to hypothesize that metformin wasn’t just impacting a few individual diseases but instead having a systemic impact on entire organisms.
Another class of drug that seems to slow the systemic process of aging in animal models and very preliminary human trials inhibits a nutrient-sensing cellular protein called mTOR. A new category of drugs called rapalogues has been shown to extend healthspan and lifespan in every type of non-human animal so far tested. Two recent human studies indicated that rapalogues increased resistance to the flu and decreased the severity of respiratory tract infections in older adults.
These promising early indications have inspired a recently launched long-term study exploring how metformin and rapalogues might delay the onset of multiple, age-related diseases and slow the biological process of aging in humans. Under normal circumstances, studies like this seeking to crack the biological code of aging would continue to proceed slowly and carefully over years, moving from animal experiments to cautious series of human trials. But with deaths rising by the day, particularly of older people, these are not times for half measures. Wartimes have always demanded new ways of doing important things at warp speeds.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease. We need to find out. Fast.
Although it would be a mistake for older people to just begin taking drugs like these without any indication, pushing to massively speed up our process for assessing whether these types of interventions can help protect older people is suddenly critical.
To do this, we need U.S. government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to step up. BARDA currently only funds COVID-19 clinical trials of drugs that can be dosed once and provide 60 days of protection. Metformin and rapalogues are not considered for BARDA funding because they are dosed once daily. This makes no sense because a drug that provides 60 days of protection from the coronavirus after a single dose does not yet exist, while metformin and rapalogues have already passed extensive safety tests. Instead, BARDA should consider speeding up trials with currently available drugs that could help at least some of the elderly populations at risk.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are ramping up their approval processes and even then needs to prioritize efforts, they too must find a better balance between appropriate regulatory caution and the dire necessities of our current moment. Drugs like metformin and rapalogues that have shown preliminary efficacy ought to be fast-tracked for careful consideration.
One day we will develop a COVID-19 vaccine to help everyone. But that could be at least a year from now, if not more. Until we get there and even after we do, speeding up our process of fortifying our older populations mush be a central component of our wartime strategy.
And when the war is won and life goes back to a more normal state, we’ll get the added side benefit of a few more months and ultimately years with our parents and grandparents.