“Cellularly speaking, aging progresses similarly in both yeast and humans,” says Vladimir Titorenko, the study’s senior author and a biologist at Concordia. “It’s the best cellular model to understand how the anti-aging process takes place.”
For the initial trials, yeast was also attractive because the researchers could get results much faster than by using a small animal, Titorenko says. For example, a mouse’s lifespan is two to three years, so testing whether the chemicals slowed aging would take at least that long to know if they were effective.
Titorenko says trials on worms and then mice are next. What about humans? He hesitated to predict when those might begin.
The most successful anti-aging molecule cited by the study was willow bark, which dates back to the time of Hippocrates in 400 B.C., when it was used for its medicinal properties. (It has a high concentration of salicin, a chemical that mimics the effects of aspirin.)
The study showed that willow bark extract increased the average and maximum chronological lifespan of yeast by 475 percent and 369 percent, respectively. Titorenko says that’s at least five times better than rapamycin or metformin, two drugs known for extending lifespan.
Idunn Technologies plans to create commercial products based on the study.
“The goal is to a have a healthy life, and increasing the quality of life can happen by reducing the rate of disease and aging,” says Éric Simard, the company’s founder.
Negative Effects Possible
But before you race to your nearest natural foods store and stock up on willow bark (yes, I’m tempted), it's best to wait for more data.
“Exceeding a specific beneficial dose of willow bark can cause negative effects and even be dangerous," Simard says. "The concentrations are very delicate and I would not recommend rushing out and taking the plant extracts until more research has been done.”
Dena Dubal, a neuroscientist at University of California San Francisco who studies aging, strongly agrees.
“It’s an intriguing start, but the research needs to be replicated in other labs,” says Dubal. “One thing I would caution is that these are very specific doses in very specific conditions on a very simple organism. Right now it’s an isolated finding. This is in no way ready for testing on ourselves.”
Dubal says human trials are likely at least a decade away. She emphasizes that plant extracts are not regulated by the FDA, and they can be unsafe.
"Remember some of the most toxic compounds come from plants, like cyanide," she says. "We don’t know what we are buying off the shelf. It may be that these compounds have a future in healthy aging, but we are not at the point of knowing that yet.”
In the meantime, Dubal offers some simple advice.
“When it comes to the science of longevity, we should stick with the science that has matured to the human level, like diet, brain stimulation, and socializing,” she says. “Take a walk, learn a new language, share a good meal with friends. And, then stay tuned for what’s being done in laboratories.”
As I was interviewing Dubal, I started feeling guilty about my bloated bathroom drawers.