What if your residents stopped deteriorating?

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Conventional wisdom holds that the sweet spot for long-term care residents is around age 85, give or take. But what if that figure were to suddenly rise by several decades?

One result would be facilities where 100-year-old residents became the rule rather than the exception. The discovery of some dirt on Easter Island might help make such scenarios less farfetched.

That's because the soil in question contains a bacterium called Streptomyces hygroscopicus. Turns out this bacterium secretes an antifungal compound that is the source of rapamycin. And rapamycin may be able to do what other promising cures could not — delay and/or minimize the diseases of aging

To be sure, rapamycin has many predecessors when it comes to life extension efforts. The early Greeks are credited with being the first to put such thoughts on paper. And Ponce de Leon was believed to have been looking for a fountain of youth when he stumbled upon Florida in 1513. During the 1800s, the French physiologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard suggested such a fountain could be found in the extracts of crushed animal testicles.

But rapamycin is different. For one thing, it has already shown its usefulness. In addition to its antifungal properties, rapamycin helps suppress the immune system, and is commonly used for patients receiving organ transplants. It's routinely used to coat cardiac stents in order to stop scarring and blocking. Moreover, derivatives have also been approved for use against some kidney, breast and lung cancers. As legacies for medicines go, that's not such a bad one.

But its real payoff may be yet to come. For you see, it is also showing promise in delaying the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer's — and perhaps extending years of healthier living as well.

Swiss drug maker Novartis is taking steps that could see a version of rapamycin emerge as the first-ever anti-aging drug. Bloomberg Business offers a fascinating look at the effort in its Feb. 12 issue.

Rapamycin works by inhibiting cellular pathways that monitor growth and metabolism. It essentially gets the user's body to behave as if it were in hungry mode, when cells tend to be less prone to self destruction.

That doesn't mean rapamycin will soon be prescribed everyone with an AARP membership. There are some potential downsides, not the least of which is that a user's immune system may be undermined. The medication has also been shown to slow wound healing and cause canker sores.

But to someone confronting Alzheimer's, frailty or imminent death, those might be risks worth chancing.

Several earlier rapamycin studies have been encouraging but not definitive. A major clinical trial with dogs is scheduled to begin next month. The results of the pending investigation might condemn the drug as another failed effort. But they just might lead to more illness-free years for your residents — and perhaps for you as well.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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