Imagine reversing the processes of aging. It's an age-old quest, and now a study from the Mayo Clinic may be the first ray of light in the dawn of that new era.
The immune system can handle a certain amount of senescence, but that capacity declines with age.
The small preliminary report, just nine patients, primarily looked at the safety and tolerability of the compounds used. But it also showed that a new class of small molecules called senolytics, which has proven to reverse markers of aging in animal studies, can work in humans.
Aging is a relentless assault of chronic diseases including Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and frailty. Developing one chronic condition strongly predicts the rapid onset of another. They pile on top of each other and impede the body's ability to respond to the next challenge.
"Potentially, by targeting fundamental aging processes, it may be possible to delay or prevent or alleviate multiple age-related conditions and many diseases as a group, instead of one at a time," says James Kirkland, the Mayo Clinic physician who led the study and is a top researcher in the growing field of geroscience, the biology of aging.
Getting Rid of "Zombie" Cells
One element common to many of the diseases is senescence, a kind of limbo or zombie-like state where cells no longer divide or perform many regular functions, but they don't die. Senescence is thought to be beneficial in that it inhibits the cancerous proliferation of cells. But in aging, the senescent cells still produce molecules that create inflammation both locally and throughout the body. It is a cycle that feeds upon itself, slowly ratcheting down normal body function and health.
Disease and harmful stimuli like radiation to treat cancer can also generate senescence, which is why young cancer patients seem to experience earlier and more rapid aging. The immune system can handle a certain amount of senescence, but that capacity declines with age. There also appears to be a threshold effect, a tipping point where senescence becomes a dominant factor in aging.
Kirkland's team used an artificial intelligence approach called machine learning to look for cell signaling networks that keep senescent cells from dying. To date, researchers have identified at least eight such signaling networks, some of which seem to be unique to a particular type of cell or tissue, but others are shared or overlap.
Then a computer search identified molecules known to disrupt these signaling pathways "and allow cells that are fully senescent to kill themselves," he explains. The process is a bit like looking for the right weapons in a video game to wipe out lingering zombie cells. But instead of swords, guns, and grenades, the list of biological tools so far includes experimental molecules, approved drugs, and natural supplements.
"We found early on that targeting single components of those networks will only kill a very small minority of senescent cells or senescent cell types," says Kirkland. "So instead of going after one drug-one target-one disease, we're going after networks with combinations of drugs or drugs that have multiple targets. And we're going after every age-related disease."
The FDA is grappling with guidance for researchers wanting to conduct clinical trials on something as broad as aging rather than a single disease.
The large number of potential senolytic (i.e. zombie-neutralizing) compounds they identified allowed Kirkland to be choosy, "purposefully selecting drugs where the side effects profile was good...and with short elimination half-lives." The hit and run approach meant they didn't have to worry about maintaining a steady state of drugs in the body for an extended period of time. Some of the compounds they selected need only a half hour exposure to trigger the dying process in senescent cells, which can then take several days.
Work in mice has already shown impressive results in reversing diabetes, weight gain, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and other conditions using senolytic agents.
That led to Kirkland's pilot study in humans with diabetes-related kidney disease using a three-day regimen of dasatinib, a kinase inhibitor first approved in 2006 to treat some forms of blood cancer, and quercetin, a flavonoid found in many plants and sold as a food supplement.
The combination was safe and well tolerated; it reduced the number of senescent cells in the belly fat of patients and restored their normal function, according to results published in September in the journal EBioMedicine. This preliminary paper was based on 9 patients in an ongoing study of 30 patients.
Kirkland cautions that these are initial and incomplete findings looking primarily at safety issues, not effectiveness. There is still much to be learned about the use of senolytics, starting with proof that they actually provide clinical benefit, and against what chronic conditions. The drug combinations, doses, duration, and frequency, not to mention potential risks all must be worked out. Additional studies of other diseases are being developed.
Ron Kohanski, a senior administrator at the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA), says the field of senolytics is so new that there isn't even a consensus on how to identify a senescent cell, and the FDA is grappling with guidance for researchers wanting to conduct clinical trials on something as broad as aging rather than a single disease.
Intellectual property concerns may temper the pharmaceutical industry's interest in developing senolytics to treat chronic diseases of aging. It looks like many mix-and-match combinations are possible, and many of the potential molecules identified so far are found in nature or are drugs whose patents have or will soon expire. So the ability to set high prices for such future drugs, and hence the willingness to spend money on expensive clinical trials, may be limited.
Still, Kohanski believes the field can move forward quickly because it often will include products that are already widely used and have a known safety profile. And approaches like Kirkland's hit and run strategy will minimize potential exposure and risk.
He says the NIA is going to support a number of clinical trials using these new approaches. Pharmaceutical companies may feel that they can develop a unique part of a senolytic combination regimen that will justify their investment. And if they don't, countries with socialized medicine may take the lead in supporting such research with the goal of reducing the costs of treating aging patients.
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.”