Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, heart disease: All have stubbornly resisted billions of dollars of research conducted by the world's finest minds. But they all may finally be defied by a single new class of drugs, a virtual cure for the diseases of aging.
In labs across the country, researchers are developing several new drugs that target the cellular engines called mitochondria. The first, resveratrol, is already in clinical trials for diabetes. It could be on the market in four years and used off-label as an all-purpose longevity enhancer. Other drugs promise to be more potent and refined. They might even be cheap.
"It's going to revolutionize western medicine," said Doug Wallace, a pioneer of mitochondrial medicine at the University of California at Irvine. "All the things that are common for an aging society, and nobody worried about when they died of infectious disease," he said, could be treated.
If the idea of a cure-all sounds fantastic, that's because it is. History is littered with failed wonder drugs, elixirs of youth and miracle cures. But these new drugs have shown tremendous promise in mice. And though success in animals is far from a guarantee for humans, the research has gone from tantalizing curiosity to a possible foreshadowing of human health care in the 21st century.
As fewer people in the West die of infectious diseases, these new mitochondrial drugs could prevent a wide range of age-related illnesses, though they likely won't extend the lifespans of healthy individuals.
Not long ago, the silver-bullet approach was disregarded, and it's still far from achieving a consensus in the scientific community. But standard research approaches to cancer, dementia and heart disease have provided relatively small benefits, and evidence has continued to accumulate in favor of Wallace and like-minded researchers who advocate a mitochondrial theory of disease.
The new drugs work by stimulating enzymes that regulate the function of mitochondria. Hundreds of these structures are found in every cell in the body, ceaselessly converting glucose into usable energy. But over time, mitochondria degenerate. They lose strength and efficiency, releasing highly reactive oxygen molecules that bind easily with other molecules and wreak cellular havoc.
A growing number of scientists suspect that the breakdown of mitochondria is among the most important causes of cell-level changes that eventually cause the body's tissues to degenerate with age. The damage accumulates gradually until hitting some critical mass of malfunction, at which point diseases arrive rapidly. That may be why so many diseases first occur during middle age, and become steadily more common afterwards.
Repair and prevent this damage, say proponents of the mitochondrial theory of disease, and those afflictions can be averted.