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Easter Island

New Easter Island Mystery: Scientists Say Natural Compound on Island Extends Lifespan

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: Easter Island, longevity, health news

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(NaturalNews) No one can argue that Easter Island, located off the coast of Chile in the South Pacific, is one of the most mysterious places on earth. The extremely remote island is home to huge, enigmatic monoliths carved by the one-time inhabitants of the island who settled there over 1,500 years ago. The large-eyed stone figures stare out at the sea as if guarding a secret. Now scientists have uncovered another mystery of Easter Island -- one that could be important for the future of humankind. New research suggests that a natural compound found in the soil of the island could be a health-promoting elixir of long life.

If this sounds like a fantasy or hocus pocus, it isn't. In fact, a study of the compound was just published in the prestigious science journal Nature. Researchers say the biochemical, produced by soil bacteria, has such extraordinary life-extending properties it could lead to a genuine "anti-aging" pill that keeps people young.

Scientists at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at San Antonio and collaborating centers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, gave the Easter Island compound, which is called rapamycin after the island's Polynesian name Rapa Nui, to middle-aged mice who were the equivalent, in mice years, of 60 year old people. The compound increased the animals' expected by 28 percent to 38 percent. Place in human perspective, the scientists noted this increase in lifespan would be greater than the predicted increase in extra years of life if all cancers and heart disease could be prevented and cured.

"We believe this is the first convincing evidence that the aging process can be slowed...," said Randy Strong, Ph.D., who directs the National Institute on Aging (NIA) funded Aging Interventions Testing Center in San Antonio. He is a professor of pharmacology at the UT Health Science Center and a senior research career scientist with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

Researchers studying aging currently know of only two life-extending strategies that appear to work for mammals -- calorie restriction and genetic manipulation. Rapamycin is believed to extend life because it impacts the same molecular pathway that restricting calorie intact also affects. The key seems to be a cellular protein in rapamycin called mTOR which controls a host of processes related to cell metabolism and responses to stress.

The male and female mice used in the study were cross-bred from four different strains of mice so they would be better examples of genetic diversity and disease susceptibility, making them more like the human population. There was, early on, a problem with feeding these animals rapamycin. The substance wasn't stable enough in food or the digestive tract to enter the bloodstream. However, that glitch was solved by placing the biochemical into a microencapsulated form so the natural compound bypassed the stomach and was released into the intestines.

This change in the original experiment meant that the mice who were originally going to receive rapamycin when they were four months old didn't get started on the compound until they were 20 months old, the equivalent of 60 year old people. Scientist Arlan G. Richardson, PhD, director of the Barshop Institute at UT, admitted in a statement to the media that this delay had made him pessimistic. In fact, he didn't think the experiment would work. After all, most reports show that calorie restriction doesn't work to prolong life if it is started at an older age so a compound that mimicked the effects of calorie restriction probably had little chance of working on an old animal. But, to Dr. Richardson's surprise, it did.

"I've been in aging research for 35 years and there have been many so-called 'anti-aging' interventions over those years that were never successful," Dr. Richardson said in his statement to the press. "I never thought we would find an anti-aging pill for people in my lifetime; however, rapamycin shows a great deal of promise to do just that."

Rapamycin was first discovered in the l970s and found to have anti-fungal properties. It was eventually used as the basis for drugs given to transplant patients to prevent organ rejection. Rapamycin is currently being tested in clinical trials as a cancer fighter, too.

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