National Geographic

Rapamycin – the Easter Island drug that extends lifespan of old mice

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIt’s 1964, and a group of Canadian scientists had sailed across the Pacific to Easter Island in order to study the health of the isolated local population. Working below the gaze of the island’s famous statues, they collected a variety of soil samples and other biological material, unaware that one of these would yield an unexpected treasure. It contained a bacterium that secreted a new antibiotic, one that proved to be a potent anti-fungal chemical. The compound was named rapamycin after the traditional name of its island source – Rapa Nui.

Skip forward 35 years and rapamycin has made a stunning journey from the soil of a Pacific island to the besides of the world’s hospitals. Its ability to suppress the immune system means that it’s given to transplant patients to stop them from rejecting their organs and its ability to stop cells from dividing has formed the basis of potential anti-cancer drugs. But the chemical has an even more interesting ability and one that has only just been discovered – it can extend lifespan, at least in mice.

David Harrison, Randy Strong and Richard Miller, leading a team of 13 American scientists, have found that capsules of rapamycin can extend the lifespans of mice that eat them by 9-14%. That’s especially amazing given that the mice were already 20-months-old at the time of feeding, the equivalent in mouse years of a 60-year-old human.

There will undoubtedly be headlines that proclaim the discovery of the fountain of youth or some such, but it is absolutely critical to say up front that this is not a drug that people should be taking to extend their lives. Rapamycin has a host of side effects including, as previously mentioned, the ability to suppress the immune system. Harrison says, “It may do more harm than good, as we know neither optimal doses nor schedules of when to start for anti-ageing effects.” So the new discovery doesn’t put an anti-ageing pill within our grasp. It’s far better to see it as a gateway for understanding more about the basic biology of ageing, and for designing other chemicals that can provide the same benefits without the unwanted risky side effects.

Nonetheless, it’s still very exciting, especially since the nutrition market is already awash with supplements that claim to slow the ageing process but which have little evidence to back their claims. Likewise, scientists have tested a number of different chemicals but the few positive effects have typically been small or restricted to a specific strain of mouse. Rapamycin is different – as Harrison himself explains, “no other intervention has been this effective when starting so late in life on such a diverse population.”

Rapamycin’s new powers were discovered as part of the National Institute on Ageing Interventions Testing Program (ITP), an ambitious research programme that tests potential life-extending chemicals in mice. Green tea extract, aspirin, resveratrol (found in red wine) and simvastatin are all up for auditions. Anyone can ‘sponsor’ a compound that they feel is worth testing, provided that they make a decent enough case for it. If the chemical makes it through the initial screening, it is tested in three independent laboratories in Maine, Michigan and Texas, in the bodies of genetically diverse mice.

That’s exactly what happened for rapamycin. It was fed to mice that were already 600 days old in three laboratories, all of which independently came to the same conclusion. Males and females that ate this special diet lived for 28% and 38% more time beyond the 600-day mark than their peers. The drug also increased the average lifespan of males by 9% and of females by 14% (defined as the point at which 90% of the mice were dead). Harrison puts these results into stark context: “By comparison, preventing ALL atherosclerosis and cancer deaths in humans would increase lifespan by less than 9%!”

Rapamycin_study.jpg

What rapamycin does

The effects of rapamycin are particularly exciting because it is a well-studied and very specific drug. It works by blocking a single protein – an enzyme called (aptly enough) TOR or ‘target of rapamycin’. Blocking the actions of TOR affects the longevity of other simpler animals and we now know that the same trick works for mammals. In fact, TOR can now claim a very special honour – it is the first protein that has been shown to influence lifespan in every one of the four model species that scientists commonly use to study ageing: yeast, worms, flies and now mice.

TOR modifies other proteins and it has many targets. It sits in the middle of a massive communications nexus that controls several important goings-on within a cell. Through this widespread signalling network, TOR influences how cells grow and divide, how proteins are manufactured from RNA, how unwanted components are recycled in disposal units called lysozymes and how our cells’ powerhouses – the mitochondria – provide them with energy. In invertebrates, all of these activities are important determinants of the ageing process.

TOR also has links to one of the few conclusive ways of extending a mouse’s life – calorie restriction. When mice and other rodents eat fewer calories (without crossing the line into malnutrition) they live longer and their TOR becomes less active. Past studies have shown that this silencing of TOR underlies some of the life-extending benefits of leaner meals. Perhaps rapamycin simply mimics the effects of eating fewer calories, providing the same anti-ageing benefits without actually requiring the animal to eat less food.

But Harrison and co argue that this is just part of the story. In mice, restricted-calorie diets don’t add much in the way of extra years if they’re started after 550 days of age, and they always understandably lead to weight loss. But even older mice can benefit from rapamycin, and they do so without losing weight. To some extent, the drug’s effects may overlap with those of calorie restriction, but it seems to do much more.  

In animals, blocking TOR also provides some protection against the diseases of old age, including cancer and heart disease. Drugs inspired by rapamycin are even being used to treat some types of cancer, and being tested as weapons against many more. Being able to fight off cancer would certainly contribute to a longer life but when Harrison, Strong and Miller performed autopsies on some of their mice, they found that rapamycin wasn’t extending life by protecting against any specific class of disease. It postponed death but didn’t alter its causes.

Finding out how exactly rapamycin and TOR affect the lifespan of mice, and indeed working out if the same effects can be duplicated in people, will probably take up years of interesting research. As they stand, our knowledge about rapamycin has already been hard won. Certainly, the latest study was beset by both lucky events and less fortunate ones.

Getting here, and the road ahead

Rapamycin.jpgThe decision to feed the drug to very old mice was the result of a “fortunate accident”. At first, the researchers found that simply adding the drug to the animals’ feed wasn’t translating into high levels of their blood. They needed to imprison the chemical in a capsule, timed to dissolve within a mouse’s digestive system and it took a year to develop this delivery system. Meanwhile, the mice that had been assigned to the study were getting on a bit. That would normally lower the odds that any chemical would successfully boost their survival, but it gave rapamycin the opportunity to show what it could do. The delay meant that the eventual results were all the more impressive.

Less fortuitously, the groups in the Michigan and Texas laboratories made an error in feeding the mice. They used different formulations of chow for the rapamycin and the control groups, so that the mice ate slightly different diets before the 600-day mark. Harrison openly admits the error (“we thought they were the same”), and he notes that in these labs, the males who ate rapamycin already had lower death rates than those who didn’t before the point when they started eating the drug.

Based on these errors, it would be difficult to say conclusively if the animals’ longer lives were the result of rapamycin or some other nutritional advantage. Thankfully, Harrison’s own group at the Jackson Laboratory, saved the day. They raised all of their mice on exactly the same food before rapamycin was added to the mix, and they also saw that the drug extended lifespan.  The female mice from all three labs add extra rigour to the results – their lifespans only started diverging once one group began their rapamycin diets.

So despite an unfortunate feeding mistake, the results still seem solid. Still, there are many questions to be answered, not least of which is what happens if you start giving mice the drug at a younger age. Harrison, Strong and Miller are starting to find out. They have begun to feed rapamycin capsules to mice at just 270 days of age and so far, these animals are also dying at lower rates than their peers.

These experiments will tell us more about the maximum benefit that rapamycin can provide. For now, the fact that the drug extends life even at old age is itself a heartening result. In a related editorial, Matt Kaeberlein writes, “The results… provide a reason for optimism that, even during middle age, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

Reference: Nature doi:10.1038/nature08221

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There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Diggitt
    July 8, 2009

    This piece is also a reminder of how valuable the soil biologists are. It’s an unglamorous field and few people outside the earth sciences have a clue how much they’ve improved our lives.

  2. Gordon
    July 8, 2009

    The answer to how this compound works is found in the first paragraph: its ANTIFUNGAL. The debilitating diseases associated with aging, including cancer, are the result of fungal(yeast) actions in the body. This science was known before modern “medicine” sold out to the drug companies. View http://www.know-the-cause.com for a full explanation of the fungal etiology of disease.

  3. rob
    July 8, 2009

    Great post. The mechanism of how this works is intriguing. Is there any sir2/calorie restriction connection to rapamycin?

  4. Longevity Switch?
    July 8, 2009

    Assuming increased longevity really comes from suppressing TOR — suppressing cryptic infections, as suggested by Gordon, is another interesting hypothesis — why hasn’t past natural selection shut down TOR? Does TOR provide benefits early in life or under conditions other than those tested? Or does TOR perhaps increase reproduction at the expense of longevity?
    We have recently published a paper exploring longevity-vs.-reproduction trade-offs in the context of environmental cues that predict changes in overall population size. Our hypothesis explains why mild stress (including calorie restriction and low doses of some toxins) often increases longevity.

  5. becca
    July 8, 2009

    Ah-ha! I knew it! Calorie restriction related life expansion depends on autophagy; rapamycin induces autophagy directly and is therefore more effective! I will harness the Awesome Power of Autophagy and create the elixir of life! Whahahahahaha
    /autophagy-obsessed mad scientist bit
    I’m embarrassed to admit I did not know of the immuno-suppressive effects of rapamycin. I wonder how best to reconcile that with other ways in which it is beneficial to the immune system (e.g. a recent Nature Medicine paper where they used rapamycin to improve BCG vaccination against tuberculosis).
    @Longevity Switch?- keep in mind mTOR knockouts are embryonic lethal at a very early stage; and that it’s a pretty evolutionarily conserved protein.
    Not being able to direct protein synthesis might have something to do with the embryonic lethality. Frankly, I’m amazed any cell can manage without mTOR given all the stuff it does.
    So there’s comparative genomic evidence it’s being selected for, and molecular/cellular evidence that suggests it would be relatively difficult to select against.

  6. Longevity Switch?
    July 8, 2009

    @becca — So shutting down TOR altogether can be lethal, but why hasn’t natural selection reduced its activity, if it extends life, perhaps allowing one more litter? Maybe because “TOR deficiency results in… marked gonadal degeneration” (Current Biology 12:1448)?
    My main point was that thinking about the tradeoffs that have shaped evolution (current vs. future reproduction, potential longevity vs. disease resistance, etc.) is the difference between understanding and magic.

  7. Liz Newton
    July 9, 2009

    I LOVE this picture of the mouse. I want one.

  8. Ed Yong
    July 9, 2009

    It was only due to a lack of time that I didn’t managed to add two pairs of fuzzy slippers onto the little type too…
    Btw, remember the sensationalist headlines I mentioned up top? I think this is the biggest FAIL yet: http://twitpic.com/9rst7

  9. Jason
    July 9, 2009

    This is interesting. I wonder will the Rapanui people of Easter Island be compensated for the bacteria taken from their island home?

  10. Air Yeezy
    July 12, 2009

    I love this the mouse,it is so Funny.

  11. Michael Lerman
    November 4, 2011

    In the very near future, verily, humans may be genetically modified to carry an additional functional copy of the highly conserved gene, FUS1/TUSC2. I classify it as a Janus (two-faced) type gene that is most suited for prevention and gene therapy of cancer. On one hand it’s a classical tumor suppressor gene (TSG) on the other it’s a powerful regulator of the immune system. Over-expression of this gene will suppress and prevent tumor formation and boost the immune system leading to overproduction of hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) and most effector cells thus activating the immune attack on tumor cells. In addition, individuals with an extra functional copy of the gene will be resistant to immune and infectious diseases including HIV and will enjoy longer lives through its positive effect on the Thioredoxin peroxidase activity.
    Michael Lerman, Ph.D., M.D.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Aging Kazakhstan President Asks His Scientists to Find Fountain of Youth | Discoblog

    [...] Discoblog: Doctors Stumped by 16-Year-Old With Toddler’s Body, Brain Not Exactly Rocket Science: Rapamycin – the Easter Island drug that extends lifespan of old mice Not Exactly Rocket Science: Low-calorie diets improve memory in old age Visual Science: Commuting [...]

    December 10, 201014:27 am

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