In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rapamycin as a drug for transplant patients. Sehgal died a few years after the FDA approval, too soon to see his brainchild save the lives of thousands of transplant patients and go on to make Wyeth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Suren Sehgal had been studying the bacteria that would eventually produce rapamycin since 1972. He purified Streptomyces hygroscopicus and the antifungal compound it produced and named it rapamycin, after Easter Island’s native name, Rapa Nui.
Novartis, the $260 billion Swiss pharmaceutical giant, has begun taking the first steps to position a version of rapamycin as the first true anti-aging drug.
Rapamycin appears to delay “age-related decline in multiple different organ systems, which is something we would expect if we were fundamentally slowing the aging process.”
The promise of rapamycin, he and others contend, is to treat aging as a contributing factor to the chronic diseases that kill people later in life, the way we now lower cholesterol to prevent heart disease. “I view it as the ultimate preventive medicine,” says Kaeberlein, who’s leading a rapamycin study on dogs.
Discover of Rapamycin delayed his own death from cancer by three years and it could have been more if he did not stop taking it
Sehgal was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, his son Ajai says, Sehgal began taking rapamycin, too—despite the drug not having been approved for anything yet. He had a hunch that it might help slow the spread of his cancer, which had metastasized to his liver and other organs. His doctors gave him two years to live, but he survived for much longer, as the tumors appeared to go dormant. The only side effect he suffered from was canker sores, a relatively small price to pay.
But in 2003, after five years, Sehgal, age 70, decided to stop taking the drug. Otherwise, he told his wife, he’d never know whether it was really holding back his cancer. The tumors came back quickly, and he died within months, says Ajai. “On his deathbed, he said to me, ‘The stupidest thing I’ve ever done is stop taking the drug.’ ”
One of the most passionate advocates for rapamycin as an anti-aging drug is a Russian scientist named Mikhail Blagosklonny, who now works at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo. A native of St. Petersburg, he was working on cancer treatments in the early 2000s when he realized the same qualities that made rapamycin effective at slowing tumor growth might also help it slow the aging process. He became so convinced of rapamycin’s potential, and its safety, that he tried it himself. “Some people ask me, is it dangerous to take rapamycin?” Blagosklonny says. “It’s more dangerous to not take rapamycin than to overeat, smoke, and drive without belt, taken together.”
Blagosklonny isn’t so measured or patient. In his view, rapamycin has been approved for use for more than 15 years, with no serious problems reported. “I have read all papers about side effects,” he says, “and there are less side effects than with aspirin.” When he took it, he says, it made him feel better, “like with exercising.”
Novartis strongly discourages such off-label use. In an e-mail, spokeswoman Mariellen Gallagher wrote: “It is far too early to tell whether low-dose rapamycin will lengthen human life span. A favorable risk/benefit ratio needs to be demonstrated in clinic trials to be sure that mTOR inhibitors such as rapamycin have acceptable safety and efficacy in aging-related conditions in humans.”