Stephen S. Hall in Science:
On a blazingly hot morning this past June, a half-dozen scientists convened in a hotel conference room in suburban Maryland for the dress rehearsal of what they saw as a landmark event in the history of aging research. In a few hours, the group would meet with officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a few kilometers away, to pitch an unprecedented clinical trial—nothing less than the first test of a drug to specifically target the process of human aging. “We think this is a groundbreaking, perhaps paradigm-shifting trial,” said Steven Austad, chairman of biology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). After Austad’s brief introductory remarks, a scientist named Nir Barzilai tuned up his PowerPoint and launched into a practice run of the main presentation. Barzilai is a former Israeli army medical officer and head of a well-known study of centenarians based at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. To anyone who has seen the ebullient scientist in his natural laboratory habitat, often in a short-sleeved shirt and always cracking jokes, he looked uncharacteristically kempt in a blue blazer and dress khakis. But his practice run kept hitting a historical speed bump. He had barely begun to explain the rationale for the trial when he mentioned, in passing, “lots of unproven, untested treatments under the category of anti-aging.” His colleagues pounced. “Nir,” interrupted S. Jay Olshansky, a biodemographer of aging from the University of Illinois, Chicago. The phrase “anti-aging … has an association that is negative.” “I wouldn’t dignify them by calling them ‘treatments,’” added Michael Pollak, director of cancer prevention at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “They’re products.” Barzilai, a 59-year-old with a boyish mop of gray hair, wore a contrite grin. “We know the FDA is concerned about this,” he conceded, and deleted the offensive phrase.
Then he proceeded to lay out the details of an ambitious clinical trial. The group—academics all—wanted to conduct a double-blind study of roughly 3000 elderly people; half would get a placebo and half would get an old (indeed, ancient) drug for type 2 diabetes called metformin, which has been shown to modify aging in some animal studies. Because there is still no accepted biomarker for aging, the drug’s success would be judged by an unusual standard—whether it could delay the development of several diseases whose incidence increases dramatically with age: cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cognitive decline, along with mortality. When it comes to these diseases, Barzilai is fond of saying, “aging is a bigger risk factor than all of the other factors combined.”