Although recent data has shown the coronavirus poses a greater risk to young people than previously understood, the ensuing COVID-19 disease is clearly far more dangerous for older people than it is for the young.
If we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach.
While our older adults have accrued tremendous knowledge, wisdom, and perspective over the years, their bodies have over time become less able to fight off viruses and other insults. The shorthand name for this increased susceptibility is aging.
We may have different names for the diseases which disproportionately kill us -- cancer, heart disease, and dementia among them – but what is really killing us is age. The older we are, the greater the chance we'll die from one or another of these afflictions. Eliminate any one completely - including cancer - and we won't on average live that much longer. But if we slow aging on a cellular level, we can counter all of these diseases at once, including COVID-19.
Every army needs both offensive and defensive capabilities. In our war against COVID-19, our offense strategy is to fight the virus directly. But strengthening our defense requires making us all more resistant to its danger. That's why everyone needs to be eating well, exercising, and remaining socially connected. But if we want to lower the COVID-19 fatality rate, we must also make fortifying our most vulnerable hosts a central part of our approach. That's where our new fight against this disease and the emerging science of aging intersect.
Once the domain of charlatans and delusionists, the millennia-old fantasy of extending our healthy lifespans has over the past century become real. But while the big jump in longevity around the world over the past hundred years or so is mostly attributable to advances in sanitation, nutrition, basic healthcare, and worker safety, advances over the next hundred will come from our increasing ability to hack the biology of aging itself.
A few decades ago, scientists began recognizing that some laboratory animals on calorie-restricted diets tended to live healthier, longer lives. Through careful experiments derived from these types of insights, scientists began identifying specific genetic, epigenetic, and metabolic pathways that influence how we age. A range of studies have recently suggested that systemic knobs might metaphorically be turned to slow the cellular aging process, making us better able to fight off diseases and viral attacks.
Among the most promising of these systemic interventions is a drug called metformin, which targets many of the hallmarks of aging and extends health span and lifespan in animals. Metformin has been around since the Middle Ages and has been used in Europe for over 60 years to treat diabetes. This five-cent pill became the most prescribed drug in the world after being approved by the FDA in 1994.
With so many people taking it, ever larger studies began suggesting metformin's positive potential effects preventing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and dementia. In fact, elderly people on metformin for their diabetes have around a 20 percent lower mortality than age-matched subjects without diabetes. Results like these led scientists to hypothesize that metformin wasn't just impacting a few individual diseases but instead having a systemic impact on entire organisms.
Another class of drug that seems to slow the systemic process of aging in animal models and very preliminary human trials inhibits a nutrient-sensing cellular protein called mTOR. A new category of drugs called rapalogues has been shown to extend healthspan and lifespan in every type of non-human animal so far tested. Two recent human studies indicated that rapalogues increased resistance to the flu and decreased the severity of respiratory tract infections in older adults.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease.
These promising early indications have inspired a recently launched long-term study exploring how metformin and rapalogues might delay the onset of multiple, age-related diseases and slow the biological process of aging in humans. Under normal circumstances, studies like this seeking to crack the biological code of aging would continue to proceed slowly and carefully over years, moving from animal experiments to cautious series of human trials. But with deaths rising by the day, particularly of older people, these are not times for half measures. Wartimes have always demanded new ways of doing important things at warp speeds.
If COVID-19 is primarily a severe disease of aging, then countering aging should logically go a long way in countering the disease. We need to find out. Fast.
Although it would be a mistake for older people to just begin taking drugs like these without any indication, pushing to massively speed up our process for assessing whether these types of interventions can help protect older people is suddenly critical.
To do this, we need U.S. government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to step up. BARDA currently only funds COVID-19 clinical trials of drugs that can be dosed once and provide 60 days of protection. Metformin and rapalogues are not considered for BARDA funding because they are dosed once daily. This makes no sense because a drug that provides 60 days of protection from the coronavirus after a single dose does not yet exist, while metformin and rapalogues have already passed extensive safety tests. Instead, BARDA should consider speeding up trials with currently available drugs that could help at least some of the elderly populations at risk.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are ramping up their approval processes and even then needs to prioritize efforts, they too must find a better balance between appropriate regulatory caution and the dire necessities of our current moment. Drugs like metformin and rapalogues that have shown preliminary efficacy ought to be fast-tracked for careful consideration.
One day we will develop a COVID-19 vaccine to help everyone. But that could be at least a year from now, if not more. Until we get there and even after we do, speeding up our process of fortifying our older populations mush be a central component of our wartime strategy.
And when the war is won and life goes back to a more normal state, we'll get the added side benefit of a few more months and ultimately years with our parents and grandparents.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”