In case you have somehow missed the hot topic on what has been an otherwise slow day for the news media, allow me to summarize the today’s big story:
SCIENTISTS FIND “FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH” DRUG!
As is often the case, what is being reported is far, far different that what actually happened.
In a research paper to be published in the January, 2011, issue of the medical journal Clinical Immunology , researchers at the University of California at San Francisco report that a drug currently used in the treatment of a certain group of cancers and a related disorder causes a dramatic slowdown, and in some cases, an improvement, in the age-related decline of the body’s immune system (a condition known as immunosenescence).
In that paper Edward Goetzl, MD (UCSF) and colleagues from the National Institute on Aging report that, in a group of 13 otherwise healthy patients with lower levels of a specific group of immune system-specific biochemicals called cytokines, the drug lenalidomide caused a marked increase in the group’s circulating cytokine levels, particularly the class of cytokines known as interleukins.
Cytokines are “messenger molecules” that signal the presence of some disease processes and are essential to the optimal function of the body’s T-cells which, among other things, isolate and neutralize proteins associated with some diseases, such as viral infections.
Despite the sensational accounts and implications given in the print, broadcast, and online media, the soon-to-be published report stresses that lenalidomide does not slow down the aging process, much less reverse it.
Currently lenalidomide is available in capsule form and is approved for use in a certain type of myelodysplasia (a disorder in which the body produces abnormally-shaped blood cells). It is also available in combination with the synthetic steroid dexamethasone as Revlimid (Celgene Corporation, NASDAQ: CELG), and is approved for use only in carefully selected cases of multiple myeloma (a type of cancer involving the bone marrow). The reason that lenalidomide is limited to use in selected cases is that it is closely related to the drug thalidomide.
In the 1950s and early 60s, thalidomide was widely prescribed to treat the nausea and vomiting that often accompanies pregnancy (“morning sickness”). Despite the fact that thalidomide was considered safe by the medical standards of that time, thalidomide was soon found to be responsible for a number of serious birth defects (such as absent or deformed arms and legs, among others) in the children of women that had used the drug. Although thalidomide has since been found to be useful in other conditions such as HIV/AIDS, it still bears the stigma of the human tragedies of a half-century before.
Given the historical fact that of any number of previously-touted “miracle meds” have failed to produce the same dramatic results in larger clinical trials or, as was the case with thalidomide in the 1950s and early 1960s, caused far greater problems that the conditions that were supposed to “cure,” skepticism regarding the potential benefits of lenalidomide is certainly warranted.
For more information about lenalidomide, see the National Institutes of Health web pages on lenalidomide, the Wikipedia entry for lenalidomide, and Celgene’s Revlimid web site. A further discussion of immunosenescence can be found at this link.