A Compound Discovered On Easter Island Extends Life, Combats Alzheimer’s

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Authored by Flora Zhao via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

(Illustration by The Epoch Times)

Scientists are still uncovering the secrets of a compound discovered 50 years ago on Easter Island. Produced by bacteria there, rapamycin appears to be a powerful life-extender and may be a transformative treatment for age-related diseases.

In 2009, the National Institute on Aging Interventions Testing Program (ITP) published a groundbreaking study indicating that rapamycin extended the lifespan of mice by 9 percent to 14 percent. Experiments conducted by various research institutions worldwide have further corroborated these findings or have found the compound to have significantly greater life-extending effects.

The drug also exhibits rejuvenating effects. For example, it can stimulate hair regrowth and prevent hair loss in a short period. It reduces proteins related to aging in the skin and increases collagen. The drug has even shown positive effects in treating age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, as well as diabetes and heart and muscle conditions.

While the drug label for rapamycin currently does not claim to “extend human life,” some people with a strong desire for longevity have already sought this medication from their doctors and take it regularly in small doses.

A study published in 2023 in GeroScience employed a questionnaire to survey 333 adults taking rapamycin off-label, most under the supervision of a physician. The vast majority (95 percent) reported taking rapamycin for “healthy longevity/anti-aging” reasons, almost 19 percent for preventing dementia, and a few for “cardiovascular disease” or “cancer.” However, no one reported taking the drug for its original approved use: prevention of organ transplant rejection.

Easter Island’s Hidden Treasure

Rapamycin was not made in a laboratory. It is not a synthetic molecule. It is actually from nature,” Dr. Robert Lufkin, adjunct clinical professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, told The Epoch Times.

In December 1964, upon hearing about the Chilean government’s plans to build an international airport on Easter Island, a team of 40 people led by Canadian scientists arrived on the island and stayed for three months. Their objective was to explore the island’s population and natural environment before it became exposed to the outside world.

During this period, they observed that the local indigenous people—who walked barefoot—never contracted tetanus, leading the researchers to suspect that some substance in the soil provided protection. Subsequently, in the laboratory, scientists found just that. This substance was a metabolite of Streptomyces hygroscopicus that possessed antibacterial properties.

This substance starves fungi and things around them and prevents the organisms from growing, Arlan Richardson, professor of biochemistry and physiology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, told The Epoch Times.

In the local indigenous language, Easter Island is called Rapa Nui. Therefore, the substance discovered in the island’s soil was named “rapamycin.”

Early Uses

In addition to rapamycin’s antibacterial properties, scientists observed that it could also inhibit the growth of animal cells. Rapamycin’s specific target is a cellular protein essential to living organisms called TOR, which acts as a “switch” for cell growth.

“It (TOR) is arguably one of the most important biological molecules ever known,” said Dr. Lufkin, as it fundamentally affects metabolism. It is worth mentioning that TOR derives its name directly from rapamycin. TOR stands for “target of rapamycin,” while mTOR, used in many studies, stands for the “mechanistic target of rapamycin.”

TOR essentially does one thing: It senses the presence of nutrients. When nutrients are available, TOR signals for cell growth. Conversely, when nutrients are scarce, cells stop growing and initiate repair. “And both of those modes are healthy and necessary for life,” explained Dr. Lufkin.

Rapamycin was initially used as an immunosuppressant. Higher doses of rapamycin (3 milligrams per day) were found to reduce the activity of immune cells, thereby suppressing the immune system’s rejection of foreign organs. In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved rapamycin for kidney transplant patients.

Due to its ability to inhibit cell growth, rapamycin was later used as an anti-cancer drug. In 2007, the rapamycin analog temsirolimus was first approved for treating kidney cancer. Dr. Lufkin noted that rapamycin is effective against multiple types of cancer, with the FDA having approved rapamycin for use as a primary or adjunct therapy for eight types.

There is a connection between the immunosuppressive and anti-cancer effects of rapamycin. “It appears to have a positive effect on cancer control in patients who have transplants—for example, heart transplants,” said Dr. Lufkin. Due to immune suppression, “the most common cause of death after the transplant is not organ rejection, but it is actually a cancer.”

Mayo Clinic researchers conducted a controlled trial, tracking over 500 heart transplant recipients for 10 years. They found that patients using rapamycin for anti-rejection had a 66 percent lower risk of developing malignant tumors than those using another anti-rejection medication (calcineurin inhibitor).

Rapamycin’s Longevity Effects

Rapamycin’s primary action is to inhibit mTOR, which can induce a fasting-like state in cells, triggering autophagy. This mechanism may contribute to its effects on longevity.

In simple terms, autophagy is the process by which cells recycle and remove their own waste and foreign materials, conserving energy for survival.

Mr. Richardson explained that mTOR sends growth signals to cells, which are crucial for children and young animals, aiding in bone growth, brain maturation, and other developmental processes. However, this signaling pathway may adversely affect older adults and mature animals. With age, mTOR can become overactive due to disease or oxidative stress—similar to constantly pressing the gas pedal while driving a car. This renders cells hyperfunctional, contributing to age-related diseases and even cancer.

Modern diet and lifestyle play a significant role in the overactivation of mTOR. With the agricultural revolution, food has become increasingly accessible. Subsequently, the widespread use of refrigerators and the prevalence of processed and ultra-processed foods in recent decades have made these foods the primary components of the modern diet. “This has led to people eating all the time. And mTOR is turned all the way on to this growth mode,” said Dr. Lufkin.

Mr. Richardson stated, “If we inhibit it, we basically slow down the growth of things that we do not want,” thereby delaying aging and preventing many age-related diseases. This has already been proven in animal models.

A study published in the journal Science showed that rapamycin extended the lifespan of mice, which had been shortened due to disease. In another study, middle-aged mice were injected with rapamycin for three months. Typically, these mice would die at around 30 months old, but their lifespan was extended by 60 percent with rapamycin.

Rapamycin is anti-inflammatory and positively affects the cardiac system, said Dr. Andrea Maier, honorary professor of general medicine and aged care at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and professor of gerontology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

An Elixir for Humans?

Given that rapamycin has been shown to promote longevity in animals, will humans soon be able to use it for the same purpose?

“I do not want to go out and say, ‘Well, you should be taking rapamycin,’” said Mr. Richardson. He added that research on rapamycin’s ability to improve or increase human lifespan “is a long way off.” Needed research includes testing potential side effects in clinical trials and assessing the compound’s therapeutic effects on specific age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

However, Mr. Richardson believes that for individuals with irreversible conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, exploring rapamycin treatment under the guidance and observation of a doctor may be a viable option.

Alessandro Bitto, acting assistant professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington, noted that while many drugs that are effective in mice ultimately fail in humans, some small-scale human studies suggest that rapamycin improves specific age-related markers.

According to Mr. Bitto, our inability to directly prove rapamycin’s longevity effects in humans is due to the fact that “we still do not have good proxies for longevity.” However, alternative measures of longevity, such as epigenetic clocks, are currently being developed and improved.

“I think there are possibly great benefits from it (rapamycin) that we do not even begin to understand now,” said Dr. Lufkin. Additionally, despite having a relatively good safety record, rapamycin has only been approved for human use for just over 20 years, and randomized controlled trials on human longevity with rapamycin only began in 2016.

Scientists are also testing rapamycin on dogs, which mostly live with their owners and are exposed to environments closer to human living conditions. This approach is expected to yield more compelling results.

“The results should be interpreted with a little caution as many more studies testing rapamycin will follow. In the meantime, there are other strategies to antagonize the aging process,” Dr. Maier told The Epoch Times.

Dr. Lufkin, on the other hand, holds a relatively positive view of rapamycin’s role in improving metabolism and extending lifespan. In fact, he takes rapamycin himself, but he stresses the importance of complementing it with lifestyle changes.

“We don’t want to just expect to take a pill and get the maximum benefit,” he emphasized. “We should also try to avoid junk food and shorten our eating window.” Combining rapamycin with lifestyle changes, such as reducing carbohydrate intake, avoiding over-processed plant oils, getting regular sleep, and staying active, can lead to better results. He also mentioned that intermittent fasting is the most effective way to improve health and longevity.

Limited Side Effects

Understanding the side effects of rapamycin is essential for those seeking health benefits from its long-term use.

Dr. Maier said rapamycin can have serious side effects. The FDA notes that taking rapamycin at a therapeutic dosage for preventing organ transplant rejection may increase the risk of infection and certain cancers related to immunosuppression. In addition, a review published in the journal Nature Aging in 2023 indicated that the side effects of higher doses of rapamycin in organ transplant and cancer patients include oral ulcers, gastrointestinal discomfort, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and impaired wound healing.

Some human experiments using low doses of rapamycin (0.1 to 0.5 milligram per day) have shown that rapamycin may benefit the immune system in some regard, as it can upregulate immunity. For instance, a series of randomized controlled trials led by Dr. Joan Mannick, a lead expert in the field of aging science and medicine, demonstrated that low doses of rapamycin were well-tolerated by humans. Compared to the placebo group, rapamycin increased the influenza vaccine response in adults over 65 by 20 percent. It also reduced the incidence of respiratory tract infections in these older adults each year.
A review published in The Lancet: Health Longevity in February reported that no serious adverse events related to rapamycin occurred in any study involving healthy individuals. The adverse events were generally mild to moderate and reversible upon treatment cessation. The most prevalent adverse effects were infections and oral and labial pathology. Additionally, there were modest increases in cholesterol and blood lipids, which resolved after treatment discontinuation.

Several other experts also noted that the side effects of rapamycin appear to be relatively mild at this stage. Dr. Lufkin mentioned a case where an adult took a single dose of rapamycin at a dose 10 times higher (103 milligrams) than usual, but it did not result in any life-threatening events. Given the direct relationship between dosage and side effect severity, researchers are also exploring dosing regimens to optimize overall benefits.

Optimistic Outlook

Clinical trials involving rapamycin are rapidly expanding, with nearly 100 ongoing trials covering a wide range of areas.

“What in my mind that was exciting about rapamycin is it was the first drug or pharmaceutical that increased lifespan,” said Mr. Richardson, author of the review “Effect of Rapamycin on Aging and Age-Related Diseases—Past and Future.” In addition to its use in cancer treatment, Mr. Richardson is also looking forward to confirming rapamycin’s therapeutic effects on Alzheimer’s disease in human trials, and he believes that the situation “might be changing within a couple of years.”

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