Rethinking Healthcare

Alzheimer's research inflates the rapamycin bubble

Alzheimer's research inflates the rapamycin bubble

Posting in Cancer

This is a drug that was originally thought to be an anti-fungal agent, then used on drug-coated stents. Now it's supposed to cure cancer, prevent Alzheimer's and extend your life by as much as 15 years?

Rapamycin, a drug that suppresses the immune system and helps prevent organ rejection, is fast becoming the hottest chemical in medicine. (The drug also goes by the name sirolimus.)

New research into Alzheimer's is going to make it hotter, and spark new debate.

Veronica Galvin at the Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio says she successfully curbed symptoms of Alzheimer's in mice using the drug. A second group, working at the same center, did the same thing using another mouse model for Alzheimer's.

Sounds great. But wait, there's more. This comes a year after Nature published a study showing mice fed rapamycin late in life actually lived longer.

Back then The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece noting that the compound was first found on Easter Island, secreted by bacteria seeking to fend off rivals. It said the compound was closely related to some cancer drugs then going through testing. (It's also being looked at in Huntington's Disease.)

There is enormous speculation about how this can be true. One theory published in Time is that it actually mimics the calorie-restricted diet some now advertise as a life-extender, increasing cellular efficiency.

Now before the old druggie in you starts looking for a connection to fix you up with some of this stuff, wait.

Rapamycin is one of a class of drugs called mTOR inhibitors, which drug companies have long pushed for late stage cancers. Its maker, Pfizer, trails rivals Novartis and Roche in testing these drugs on cancer, which may have led to its testing for other things. (Pfizer's brand name for it is Rapamune.)

This sort of thing happens with drugs. Much of the time, initial excitement turns to disappointment, sometimes when studies on rodents don't play out on people, sometimes when side-effects are found, sometimes not until the drug is on the market and it gets its real test.

This is a drug that was originally thought to be an anti-fungal agent, then used on drug-coated stents. Now it's supposed to cure cancer, prevent Alzheimer's and extend your life by as much as 15 years?

Extraordinary claims. Wait for extraordinary proof.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure