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Can Scientists Slow Down Aging?

A Ron Howard documentary explores cutting-edge research


Soon, the first of the boomers will turn 70. As if that milestone weren’t jarring enough, think about this: By 2050, the boomers will be largely responsible for nearly doubling America’s population over 65. And as they age, many of the boomers — like those who came before them — will come down with an assortment of age-related diseases, ranging from cancer to heart disease and diabetes to perhaps the cruelest of all, Alzheimer’s.

That is, unless science intervenes.

But what if we could delay the aging process? Not reverse it Benjamin Button-style; just slow it down, so the diseases that typically accompany aging,  especially as you move into your 60s and 70s, don’t show up until years later? Imagine how slowing aging would ease the burdens on the health care system and economy. If the crush of older people could extend their health span — that is, the years they stay healthy as they age — it would profoundly improve their quality of life and cut down on the vast resources needed to treat them.

Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, believes he’s found a way to do just that: to mirror the slow aging of the centenarians he has studied using a drug shown to have an anti-aging effect in some animals. In answer to skeptics who bristle at the thought of another “anti-aging charlatan” selling an elixir, Barzilai is quick to insist that this is hard science, not quackery or some mad chase for the fountain of youth.

As boomers begin to march into their retirement years, it's not unusual for them to project ahead and despair at the prospect of aging.

His quest to prove that he’s discovered a game-changer in the history of aging research is the subject of a fascinating new episode of Breakthrough, a documentary series produced by Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment that explores cutting-edge science. The Age of Aging airs on Sunday Nov. 29 at 9 pm ET on the National Geographic channel.

An Unprecedented Study

Barzilai and his team are trying to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve an ambitious and unprecedented 3,000-person, six-year clinical study. It would test the effects on aging of an old and inexpensive drug for type 2 diabetes called Metformin that had been shown to modify aging in some animal studies. (Barzilai also serves as deputy scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research, the group sponsoring the study.) Barzilai is so confident the drug could do the same for humans that he invited a film crew to capture preparations last June for his team’s high-stakes pitch to FDA officials. If approved, it would be the first study of a drug to specifically target the process of human aging. He hopes to launch it in summer 2016.

“We think this is a historic day for us,” he told the filmmakers. “We’re going to offer something that is paradigm changing.”

The notion of slowing down the aging clock was so intriguing to Howard, who explored this theme in the comedy movie Cocoon, that he decided this would be the one episode of Breakthrough he would direct and narrate.

“I think the subject appealed to Ron because he grew up on the public stage,” says Kurt Sayenga, a fellow boomer and the series’ executive producer. Indeed, during the broadcast you see Howard, one of the most chronicled boomers, age before our eyes from young Opie on The Andy Griffith Show to Richie Cunningham on Happy Days to the balding 61-year-old entertainment chairman of today.

Howard and his team scrapped the original concept for the show once they discovered that aging research was on the verge of something big. “This originally started as a program about immortalists and whether we can live forever,” Sayenga says, “but once we realized that scientists might soon allow people to live healthier, far longer, it fit into the theme of the Breakthrough series: scientific exploration where people were making a difference.”

A Drug to Slow Aging

As boomers begin to march into their retirement years, it’s not unusual for them to project ahead and despair at the prospect of aging. Even for younger boomers, there’s fear. For Sayenga, it’s Alzheimer’s that scares him, “that gradual chipping away of your brains. Very painful. I’d like to avoid that.”

Barzilai, too, fears the loss of his cognitive function. It’s one of the reasons he’s motivated to find a way to “prevent the chronic, debilitating diseases of aging.” He anticipates the FDA will approve the Metformin trial and suspects the next generation of drugs will be even more effective.

Cameras were not permitted at the official meeting where Barzilai presented his PowerPoint on plans for his clinical study. And Dr. Robert Temple, the FDA’s deputy director for clinical science in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, is not making any promises, of course.

“The study of aging, and the idea that you might be able to treat aging as a condition, is a new and intriguing area of science,” Temple recently told Next Avenue. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

But on the day of the presentation, he gave filmmakers a sense of the potential: “If you are really doing something to alter aging, the population of interest is everybody,” he said. “It would surely be revolutionary if they can bring it off.”

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