What is rapamycin and how does it help prevent aging

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  • Rapamycin is a drug generally used for kidney transplants and certain cancers.
  • It slows cell growth and reproduction, and researchers are studying whether it can slow aging.
  • Some biohackers and scientists are already trying it, but the risks are still unknown.

About a year ago Dan started biohacking. The 44-year-old Australian exercises, tries to eat “quite healthy”, tracks his sleep with a fitness ring, meditates and tests his blood regularly, all to stay fit and healthy as he gets older.

And, once a week, Dan puts a few milligrams of rapamycin in his mouth. It is an immunosuppressive drug that is usually taken daily to help treat certain cancers or encourage the bodies of organ recipients to accept new kidneys. But Dan started taking a little each week, hoping to help his body stay young.

His family, he says, thinks he’s ‘crazy’ for taking off-label rapamycin, but he says he just didn’t want to wait until he was old and sick to play pharmaceutical ‘mole’ with his body.

Dan asked Insider not to publish his last name because he hasn’t been prescribed all of the medications he takes to fight aging by licensed doctors. Instead, he gets some of his pills from the internet, through foreign pharmacies. He takes metformin, a cheap diabetes drug, daily and takes several $1 or $2 rapamycin pills at the end of each week.

Aging experts say it’s possible Dan’s rapamycin can to be the closest thing we’ve found to a fountain of youth so far. Some biohackers, researchers, and physicians have already decided to try rapamycin on themselves and their patients, in hopes that they can avoid more chronic disease, pain, and suffering as they age. But they don’t yet know if it actually works – and if so, at what cost.

Rapamycin tells cells to stop growing

Rapamycin, also known as sirolimus, was first discovered in a clod of earth on the island of Rapa Nui. This natural antifungal limits a key protein in our body that is essential for helping cells grow and reproduce.

Like fasting, rapamycin tells cells to slow down their growth and reproduction.

While this type of activity can be very dangerous for a growing or young fetus, it can also be a great way for aging bodies to reduce the troublesome age-related inflammation that can contribute to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Rapa Nui is also called Easter Island. This is where rapamycin was first discovered.
Gregory Boissy/AFP/Getty Images

Rapamycin keeps flies and mice young – but we don’t know if it can do the same for humans

In laboratory studies, rapamycin has helped flies, crustaceans, yeasts and mice live longer and healthier lives. In mice, rapamycin delayed age-related problems, including tumors, cognitive decline, and cardiovascular problems. It is currently being tested on healthy, aging dogs across the United States.

Studies of rapamycin that have been done in people already suggest that it may improve immune function in older adults. Rapamycin has been shown to improve how older adults respond to flu shots and reduce their risk of becoming seriously ill during cold and flu season.

Matt Kaeberlein, director of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute at the University of Washington, studies how more than 330 rapamycin users with an average age of around 60 report feeling when taking the drug off-label. Its main purpose is to ensure that their ad hoc self-prescribing methods are safe. But, it was hard for him to tell, given all the different protocols.

“The doses people are taking off-label are everywhere,” Kaeberlein said. “It’s the Wild West.”

No one figured out how to take Rapamycin for aging

No one knows the best dosage or the best time to take rapamycin to prevent aging. But some suggest that the drug is probably safer and more accurate than metformin, another off-label anti-aging solution popular with biohackers. Side effects of metformin can include explosive diarrhea and painful stomach cramps, but the main side effect of rapamycin that Kaeberlein noted in his study is canker sores in the mouths of some patients. He also noticed “interesting” signs that the drug could act as an antidepressant or anxiolytic in some patients. He even tried rapamycin on himself, to deal with a frozen shoulder.

The potential for long-term toxicity with rapamycin is another open question scientists are discussing. Laboratory studies in rats and mice suggest that it’s possible that taking rapamycin indefinitely could disrupt the pancreas and encourage insulin resistance, the classic precursor to diabetes.

Scientists aren’t yet sure if rapamycin can do for humans what it did for mice and other animals. But many are hopeful because the beneficial effects on aging bodies are seen in such a wide range of other organisms.

“We’ve cured cancer in a mouse 50 million times – and that doesn’t translate to humans,” said Dr. Joan Mannick, who has studied how rapamycin affects the immune system of older people, during a a recent episode of “Longevity by Design,” expressing cautious optimism about the drug.

“I think we’re going to crack this one and we’re going to find out, but people should wait until it’s cracked,” she said.

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