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Scientists on the hunt for anti-aging drugs say they may have made a tantalizing advance. They've shown that drugs, like those that can extend the lives of lab animals, appear to safely boost the immune systems of elderly humans. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: One of the holy grails of medical research is finding ways to fight aging. Severely restricting how many calories someone consumes may do that, but that's not practical for most people. So scientists have been testing drugs that seem to help lab animals live longer by mimicking what severe caloric restriction does in the body.
JOAN MANNICK: If this translates to humans, humans will live healthier longer. And that's our goal - is to promote healthy aging.
STEIN: That's Joan Mannick, chief medical officer at a Boston company called resTORbio. Her team tested two drugs that appear to have these anti-aging powers.
MANNICK: And we decided to start by just looking at whether we could make immune function better 'cause that's something that's relatively easy to measure in a short period of time.
STEIN: They gave 264 elderly people one or two of these drugs or placebo every day for six weeks and followed them for a year. The drugs appear to reduce the number of infections by about 40 percent.
MANNICK: That's a big reduction.
STEIN: The drugs also boosted how the elderly people's immune systems responded to a flu vaccine. That's a big deal because older people are among the most vulnerable to the flu. And the vaccine often doesn't work as well on their older, weaker immune systems.
MANNICK: Respiratory tract infections are the fourth leading cause of hospitalizations in people 65 and older and, you know, a major cause of death. So if we can reproduce these findings - and they have to be reproduced and validated - that's a big deal.
STEIN: The drugs did cause some stomach problems for some people, but that was usually no big deal. And Mannick hopes these kinds of drugs may do more than just protect older people from infections.
MANNICK: This study is the first step to suggest we may be able to target some of the fundamental pathways contributing to aging - to promote healthy aging, including healthy immune function, in older people.
STEIN: Some experts caution that this study was relatively small and used methods that could produce misleading results, but others say the results are encouraging.
FELIPE SIERRA: I think the results are quite exciting.
STEIN: That's Felipe Sierra, director of the division of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging.
SIERRA: It is possible that further research in this same combination of drugs or similar combinations will lead to a possibility of addressing multiple chronic diseases because these drugs have been shown to affect the process of aging itself, which is a major risk factor for all of those diseases.
STEIN: The drug company has already started testing these drugs on more elderly people to try to get a better idea of how well they work and how safe they are. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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