Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best,
"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
There's not a whole lot a person can do to avoid taxes short of moving out of the United States, but according to researchers there may be something that can be done to significantly extend our lives well beyond the nearly 79-year time frame that the average American will live today. This miracle cure can be found in the form of a pill.
Unmasking the anti-aging wonder drug
We need look no further than a prescription drug that was discovered in the 1920's, introduced to pharmacy shelves during the 1950's in the United Kingdom, and gained approval in the United States in 1995. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you metformin.
This wonder drug, which is best associated with drug developer Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY) and was marketed under the Glucophage brand-name, is also the best-selling diabetes medicine in the world, with Statista estimating that more than 59 million prescriptions just of the immediate-release formulation were dispensed within the U.S. in 2014. By comparison, the second most-prescribed diabetes medicine in 2014 in the U.S. was glimepiride (originally know as Amaryl) with 12.7 million U.S. prescriptions.
In addition to providing improved glycemic balance, metformin is believed to increase the number of oxygen molecules released into a cell, making the cell more robust and purportedly boosting its longevity. Researchers note that cells themselves do not necessarily age. What happens within our bodies is that billions of cell divisions result in irreparable damage to some of our cells which, in turn, results in diseases or even cancer. The postulation here is that if metformin is taken for an extended period of time it could reduce instances of cellular division errors and prevent some deadly or chronic diseases from happening in the first place.
Research suggests this just might work
It might sound like something right out of a Star Trek episode, but researchers in separate studies have demonstrated an anti-aging effect for test subjects given metformin versus subjects not given the drug.
According to The Telegraph, Belgian researchers tested metformin on a type of roundworm and noticed the worms aged at a slower pace and stayed healthier longer. In similar fashion, mice treated with metformin had their lifespan increased by about 40%, with researchers also noting an increase in bone strength.
There have even been instances where human trials have implied that metformin can help people live longer. Cardiff University in the United Kingdom studied more than 180,000 people who were taking metformin. Diabetes is known to, on average, reduce a person's lifespan by eight years because of its many comorbidities. However, the Cardiff University studies, when controlling for certain factors, discovered that type 2 diabetics taking metformin lived an average of 15% longer than control subjects that didn't have type 2 diabetes in the first place.
Following such encouraging data, researchers have suggested that taking metformin on a regular basis could extend a person's life by as much as 50%. This theory is being put to the test with a new clinical trial known as Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME, which is scheduled to kick off in late 2016 and will enroll approximately 3,000 people ages 70 to 80 who are at a high risk for heart disease, cancer, or dementia.
It remains to be seen if metformin does indeed provide anti-aging qualities, but I, along with millions (possibly billions) of people worldwide, will be awaiting the results of the TAME trial with a lot of anticipation. In the meantime it's worthwhile to consider what implications a positive trial result might have on the drug development, insurance, and even diagnostic space.
Bristol-Myers Squibb's Glucophage lost patent protection all the way back in 2002, but that hasn't stopped the company from still producing the drug along with an extended release formulation. In addition to Bristol-Myers Squibb, generic manufacturers could possibly see their demand for the drug spike. There are a lot of names involved in the manufacture of generic metformin, but the best-known might be Teva Pharmaceutical and Mylan. Generic drugs don't have the highest margins because of their low price point, but huge demand in this case could make the production of metformin very worthwhile.
Perhaps the industry with the most at stake based on the TAME trials are health-benefit providers. Because metformin costs just a fraction of what Glucophage did when it was a branded drug, insurers are more than happy to approve and fill prescriptions for their members. More so than just saving on prescription costs (which is a nice benefit for the consumer as well since it allows them to keep more money in their pocket), insurers could wind up saving big bucks over the long run. If costly diseases such as cancer and diabetes can be prevented or subdued to some extent it could have a big impact on insurers' long-term medical expenses and, dare I say, it may even halt premium inflation in its tracks.
Lastly, I suspect a positive metformin study would be beneficial to the diagnostics sector. The healthcare arena is becoming more personalized by the day, and if consumers wind up living considerably past their 80th birthday, treatments that are geared toward their specific genetic makeup may prove all the more important.
One specialized diagnostic option that recently hit the market is Exact Sciences' (NASDAQ:EXAS) Cologuard. This diagnostic colon cancer detection system acts as a preventative tool to be used on an aging American population prior to a colonoscopy. The test involves the user sending a stool sample to Exact Sciences' lab for analysis where the company is able to determine whether any abnormal DNA cells are detected on the sample. If abnormal DNA is detected it would potentially signal a cancerous growth or polyp in the test patient's colon, which would imply that the patient's next step is a colonoscopy. Exact Sciences' diagnostic test is a convenient, cost-effective, personalized, and noninvasive way of getting some answers, and it could be especially useful for an aging population.
I want to be clear that this is all purely speculation at this point. Although we have correlative evidence that metformin has helped roundworms, mice, and some people in the UK live longer, we'll need a well-controlled long-term study to make that call. This doesn't mean I'm not hoping for a positive outcome, but let's try to reserve our judgment until all the facts are in.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool recommends Mylan and Teva Pharmaceutical. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.