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This last decade has been marked by the emergence of a new scientific discipline: “geroscience”, which aims to study solutions to increase the number of years of good health based on the biology of aging – the main risk factors for diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Although the fundamentals are still tenuous, experts believe that aging is the world’s most important “medical problem”. Aware of this major health “problem”, but perhaps also fearing an abnormally accelerated aging of its population, Saudi Arabia wants to set up a non-profit association to fund its geroscientific research with up to a billion dollars a year. The first drug tested would be metformin, an antidiabetic that also appears to have anti-aging effects. This first step could thus pave the way for trials of other potential anti-aging drugs.
Gerosciences is a discipline that has recently become popular. According to many of its supporters, aging is the main risk factor for all chronic diseases, which particularly affect the aging population. Therapeutically, targeting aging directly would yield faster results than treating diseases individually.
The idea is far from proven, but according to this new hypothesis, certain drugs could delay the onset of many diseases, such as cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s, by reversing the fundamental aging processes in cells.
Geroscience also seduces the planet’s greatest fortunes, perhaps in search of fanciful dreams like eternal life… But more realistically, fearing the premature aging of their population, the Saudis created the largest organization dedicated to basic research in biology of aging. Dubbed the Hevolution Foundation, the primary goal will be to extend the “healthy lifespans” of people who will benefit from the drugs.
Alongside this basic research, however, Hevolution intends to test experimental drugs that have never been brought to market or whose patents have expired. But the first tests would initially revolve around the “supposed” anti-aging effect of metformin.
Mehmood Khan, CEO of the association and a former endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic (USA), asserts that he has the power to spend the billion dollars a year indefinitely alongside the possibilities of biotechnology support. This makes it the largest sponsor in history in this research area, compared to only $325 million a year in funding for the US National Institutes on Aging Division.
Early aging of the Gulf population
The Saudi initiative could be due to the fact that all residents of the Arab Gulf States would biologically age faster than chronologically. This would pose a threat to the future of Saudi Arabia, whose incredible economic growth would have produced various pathologies common to the wealthy classes.
Although the country’s population is relatively young (31 years old on average), there is actually a growing rate of obesity and diabetes, likely due to high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles. In a 2019 study, the country’s health authorities said that the country’s economic prosperity has led to an urgent need to establish programs to prevent and control age-related diseases.
First attempts with metformin
Hevolution has reportedly reached a tentative agreement to fund metformin trials. Notably, this is the first major study of this drug for its purported anti-aging effects. Because aging is not easily measurable, nor is it considered a real disease, studies have focused primarily on the molecule’s ability to delay the onset of various age-related pathologies.
Metformin is indeed a drug that has been marketed for a long time. It is the “safest” antidiabetic in its category. If it’s caught the interest of geroscientific scientists lately, it’s because studies have recently shown that diabetics who take it live longer, on average, than many healthy people.
However, these anti-aging effects would only be seen in people with type II diabetes, and more research is needed before positive effects for other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, can be confirmed. Hevolution therefore intends to recruit nearly 3,500 people for its first clinical trial, to follow their evolution over five or six years and potentially pave the way for the development of new anti-aging treatments.
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