The first time that I heard of the drug rapamycin was in the year 2000, when my dad just barely survived heart transplant surgery. Miraculously though, he did, and his doctors gave him rapamycin to prevent his body from rejecting his new heart. He’s been on rapamycin, or a very similar drug, ever since.
What Is Rapamycin?
Rapamycin is a compound produced by bacteria first discovered on Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui, hence “Rapa”-mycin). It’s traditionally been used to suppress the immune system for transplant patients where it’s used under the clinical name “Sirolimus” or “Rapamune.” It was approved by the FDA in 1999 to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients, meaning it’s safe enough for use in humans for this purpose.
Since my dad’s heart transplant 23 years ago, rapamycin has been quite the focus in the aging field. In addition to preventing organ rejection, it’s been shown to extend the healthy portion of life in a variety of laboratory animals.
The benefits of rapamycin in aging mice are rather remarkable. Not only does it increase lifespan, it also improves cognitive function, kidney function, and heart function, lowers the rate of cancer and reverses periodontal disease. Essentially, it makes mice get older later in life.
I became re-acquainted with rapamycin in 2014, as the Project Manager for the Dog Aging Project. The goal of this project was two-fold. One, to confirm what we had been suspecting for quite some time. That rapamycin was safe at low doses for use in larger animals such as companion (pet) dogs. Remember that it was already approved for use in humans by this point. And two, to determine if the positive effects from laboratory animals could also be seen in dogs.
The results of that project did indeed confirm our first line of thinking but brought up a whole series of other questions as well. At that point in time, even veterinarians didn’t know what healthy aging looked like in companion dogs. There was no consensus, no baseline for comparison of the influence of rapamycin to what was normal aging in a dog.
And so began a nationwide, long-term study under the same name, to study both normal aging and the long-term effects of rapamycin in volunteer companion dogs. I’m no longer working on this much larger project, but my dog is a happy and proud member of the Dog Aging Project Pack. It will be a few more years before we know anything for certain. Preliminary results suggest rapamycin may have a positive effect on heart function and activity in older companion dogs.
My most current work with rapamycin arose from the dawning realization that there are many people already taking rapamycin for its potential “anti-aging” properties. These people are taking it either by prescription or ordering it from overseas and with a huge range of results.
Even though rapamycin is not approved by the FDA for use as a longevity drug, medical doctors are allowed to prescribe medications already approved by FDA for other indications “off label,” meaning to be used for other purposes, when they believe it is in the best interest of their patients. Most doctors don’t know much about rapamycin, but a few have become comfortable prescribing it for these purposes.
Today, thousands of people around the world are taking rapamycin off label in hopes it may help them live healthier longer. There is no general consensus of how much or how often people should take it or what the side effects of taking it in combination with other drugs may be. While there are groups of individuals here and there sharing their resources and findings online, very little was known about rapamycin use in healthy people.
What Was Known as of 2021
Rapamycin prescribed at extremely high doses for immune suppression, such as organ transplants, has a long list of potential undesirable side effects. Most notably, an increased risk of bacterial infections. In addition, patients like my dad often experience mouth sores, slower wound healing and increased levels of blood lipids.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that rapamycin actually improves immune function at low doses in otherwise healthy older adults, with few side effects involved. Two large clinical trials found that a slightly modified version of rapamycin could boost flu vaccine response in the elderly and potentially protect those individuals from subsequent viral infections, including the coronavirus.
Our University of Washington Rapamycin Survey Study, 2021-2023
Funded by the Impetus Grants Program, the goal of the UW study was to survey the people taking rapamycin on their own, to determine if there are any significant side effects or positive benefits from their experiences. We (my husband, several colleagues and I) surveyed over 300 people taking it, as well as 150 people not taking it for a comparison.
The basic findings of this survey, just published, suggest that rapamycin can be taken safely at low doses by normally healthy humans, but also that some caution may be warranted with respect to bacterial infection and also suggest some unexpected possible benefits. While there are numerous biases inherent in a self-reported, survey-based study, there were a few key takeaways from our findings.
There was about a two-fold increase in self-reported mouth sores and risk of bacterial infection among the people taking rapamycin. It’s important to keep in mind that these results have not been confirmed by a doctor or other medical professional, so we are relying often on an individual’s recollection and self-diagnosis of things like infections, which may or may not be very accurate. Unexpectedly, there was an apparent benefit from rapamycin use for abdominal pain, eye pain, depression, and anxiety, which were all self-reported more often in non-users compared to the users.
Potentially of the most interest, the study suggests that there may be a significant reduction in the severity of COVID-19 infection and protection against long-COVID among people who took rapamycin, but further research is needed in this area. In addition, rapamycin users reported a general improvement in self-perceived quality of life.
Lastly, we found that there are several people with a range of diseases that are finding positive effects from their use of rapamycin. Included in this group are those with PHTS (Cowden’s Syndrome), arthritis, frozen shoulder and ADHD.
The numbers for each of these groups are too low to apply statistics, but their results and self-reported improvements in quality of life are noteworthy. While truly very promising, more funding and more effort is necessary to assess the positive impact of rapamycin for these people.
What Does It All Mean for You?
Hopefully the UW survey study will make it easier for clinical trials to begin to establish whether rapamycin can prove beneficial toward a variety of age-related endpoints. Clinical trials have recently been funded, also by the Impetus Grants Program, to assess the impact of rapamycin on both periodontal disease and premature ovarian failure.
Our study should also facilitate a better understanding of rapamycin for physicians. Most physicians remain unaware of alternative uses of this drug outside of organ transplant medicine. Hopefully, that will change as additional studies like this provide information on the actual risks and potential rewards of off-label, low dose rapamycin use.
Will It Make a Difference in Your Life?
Maybe. Should you take it? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s a question for you and your personal physician to discuss.
What Can I Do Now, to Live Healthier Longer?
As a scientist in the field of aging, I’m often asked variations of this same question. And the answer is A LOT.
Even without rapamycin, there are many things you can do right now to extend the quality of your life. They’re simple, inexpensive and available to you now. And most importantly, they’re proven many times over to be effective in living a longer, healthier and happier life.
The four main components for healthy living are nutrition, fitness, sleep and mindset. These are the best things you can focus on to extend the healthy portion of your life, regardless of your current age.
Pay Attention to Your Diet
Having a balanced and nutritious diet can lower your chances of developing various age-related illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In addition, it can also enhance your ability to recover quickly from illnesses in the short term.
There are many cultures whose cuisines contribute to good health and long life, and taste fantastic too. Do we have to give up our eating habits in favor of theirs? No, but we can be open-minded to finding new and healthier options that might work for us. That we might even love. To incorporating some of their signature dishes into our own lifestyle.
Engage in Physical Activity
Focusing on physical fitness can improve your balance, coordination, cardiovascular health, muscle and bone strength, and help you maintain independence for a longer period of time. These aspects are crucial if you aim to achieve optimal health throughout your life.
How to move more? Start by making the commitment to do so. Be open to ideas and opportunities. Spend time outside if you can, doing whatever it is you enjoy doing, with friends or on your own. Look for a hobby you enjoy that will allow you to move more. Walking is one of the very best, by the way, for your coordination, dexterity, cardiovascular capacity and your mindset.
Get Enough Sleep
Sufficient sleep provides your body with the time it needs to restore itself. Getting enough sleep can enhance your energy levels, outlook, memory, concentration, productivity, mood, and interpersonal interactions.
There are many steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep. The first step is recognizing that you need to, and the second step is making a commitment to do something about it. Invest in learning more and you will be investing in your future.
Take Care of Your Mindset
Mindset refers to the way you approach life, face challenges and overcome setbacks. A healthy mindset allows you to maintain a positive perspective and make the most out of each day. This type of mindset can lead to improved physical and mental health, greater independence, a supportive community, and a more fulfilling lifestyle.
It’s important to develop a growth mindset, especially as you get older. If you don’t already have one, you will be shocked at the difference it makes in every aspect of your life. This is possibly the best gift you can give yourself, wherever you are in life.
These four pillars will have the most profound impact on your current and future life, regardless of the outcome of rapamycin studies.
FAQs About Rapamycin
Here are some of the many questions I’ve heard regarding rapamycin and its use.
Can Rapamycin Reverse Aging?
No. Rapamycin has been shown to slow the rate of aging in laboratory animals, but nothing has been proven to reverse aging.
What Can’t Rapamycin Do?
It cannot and never will provide the nutrition, exercise, sleep or mindset that you need to live a fulfilled life, whatever your age.
Do I Need a Prescription for Rapamycin?
Currently you need a prescription for rapamycin in the United States and most other countries as well. Physicians within the United States are able, if not always willing, to prescribe rapamycin to their patients as it’s already FDA approved.
What Foods Are Rich in Rapamycin?
Foods do not naturally contain rapamycin, as it is derived from soil bacteria on Easter Island.
Rapamycin is a powerful drug with unknown but promising potential. It appears to have few side effects when taken at low doses and may have significant positive effects on the quality of our lives in the future. Further research is needed to fully assess its effectiveness in a wide range of diseases. The results of this research will likely have a profound impact on a huge number of people.
Let’s Have a Conversation:
What are you doing to improve the quality of your life now and in the future? Do you feel science is helping or hurting our perceptions on the aging process? Which of the four main components of healthy aging are you strongest on? Which one do you need to focus on more?
This content was originally published here.