SAN ANTONIO -- Local scientists say recent advancements in pharmacology and genetics are bringing us closer to the fountain of youth. Treatments are already being tested in South Texas that could someday extend lifespan by decades or even reverse some of the symptoms of aging.
The most promising treatment right now is a mysterious drug called Rapamycin.
Dr. Dean Kellogg, a UT Medicine and Barshop Institute researcher and clinical doctor working at the San Antonio VA, says he's been testing the drug on eight people in the San Antonio area.
He says he never imagined just how effective it could be.
"I never really thought I would see a pharmacological agent that can alter the aging process," said Kellogg. "Rapamycin appears to slow the aging process."
The drug is made from an anti-fungal agent produced by a rare form of bacteria discovered in the soil on Easter Island. For years it has been used as an immuno-suppressant, given to transplant patients to prevent their immune systems from rejecting new organs.
Its anti-aging properties were only recently discovered.
Dr. Kellogg says the pill works by mimicking the effects of a low-calorie diet, tricking a cellular mechanism that regulates cell growth and consumption of nutrients. It forces cells into a conservative state, preventing the tiny factories from overworking and causing wear and tear.
Dr. Kellogg says he watched patients' minds sharpen, their immune systems improve, and their muscles get stronger, all in a period of four months.
"There was one gentleman who went from 17-18 seconds to walk 40 feet, to 7-8 seconds to walk 40 feet," said Kellogg.
But Dr. Kellogg says Rapamycin isn't exactly the fountain of youth. He says it will allow people to be more active and independent longer, but may only extent overall average lifespan by a few years.
His colleagues at UT Medicine are already seeking the next step.
Dr. Alfred Fisher, a geneticist at UT Medicine, is conducting experiments on small animals, finding the exact genes that influence aging and altering them.
"Sometimes we're talking about doubling, tripling and more of the lifespan of the animal," said Fisher.
Dr. Fisher says his work is still very early, and the possibilities of genetic engineering are less dramatic in humans, who have longer lifespans compared to the roundworms and mice that act as his test subjects.
Both he and Dr. Kellogg speculate human lifespan could easily pass 100, and theoretically go as high as 120 before reaching an upper limit.
But even drugs in human testing, like Rapamycin, still have a long way to go before they can be widely used to fight aging. Dr. Kellogg says the side effects are still too uncertain.
In the meantime, experts recommend achieving a low-calorie diet the hard way, by eating less. They say that, in addition to 20-30 minutes of day of walking or light exercise, can be just as effective as Rapamycin in many people.
They say their hope is that someday their work will fully bear fruit, and people will be able to enjoy a long and healthy life with little more effort than taking a pill.