Can a Popular Diabetes Drug Slow Aging?

Last December, the FDA approved a clinical trial in people to determine if metformin, a popular medication used to control diabetes, might be used to slow the aging process in seniors.

The trial is called Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME). Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, is heading the study. They plan to enroll 3,000 people, ages 65 to 80, who have or are at risk for cancer, heart disease or dementia. Half will take metformin. All will be tracked for about six years to see if taking metformin delays the development of illness and death.

Why metformin? Millions of Americans have used it safely over decades as the first line of defense against diabetes. Metformin works by controlling blood sugar levels and making the body respond better to insulin, but it may do more than that.

Researchers are finding that metformin may have positive effects for conditions beyond diabetes. It has been linked to a reduction in the risk of cardio-vascular disease, several types of cancer and glaucoma. A large study completed in 2014 (University of Cardiff, 180,000 people) found that people with Type 2 diabetes who took metformin lived longer than healthy people without diabetes who were not taking it. Also, studies on the biology of aging have shown that metformin can delay aging in animals.

The goal of this study, however, is not to increase longevity. People are already living longer, but that longer life often comes with a rise in heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia—all age-related diseases. Researchers with the TAME trial hope to extend the amount of human life that remains free from age-related disease, giving people more healthy years of living.

Currently, medicine focuses on one disease at a time. Finding a cure for cancer is separate from that of Alzheimer’s, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and doctors are trained to treat each disease separately. The TAME trial researchers hope to delay or prevent the onset of all age-related diseases simultaneously, rather than treat each one individually as they arise and accumulate. Another benefit? Potentially saving billions of dollars in health care costs.

There are currently several experimental anti-aging treatments in animals and some are promising, but they have risky side effects. The TAME trial has great promise with metformin’s long safety record (approved by the FDA for more than 50 years), inexpensive costs and supporting data from other studies.

The TAME trial will begin as soon as funding is completed, which is expected in 2016