Interview | biomedicine
Michael Hall, Biochemist
The scientist who defined the protein of old age ensures that his study will also allow better control of mental illness
The name of Michael Hall has been linked in recent years with eternal youth. There is something to that, but it’s not exact. “There are those who tell it like that, but he doesn’t believe it,” he warns. The only thing he has done, which is no small thing, is to define, together with his colleague David Sabatini, the mechanism by which our body regulates cell growth. They call it the mTOR pathway, a therapeutic target that favored the development of a drug, rapamycin, which is used with great success in clinical practice against the main diseases linked to aging, including cancer and diabetes.
Now, that finding is helping to understand why controlled fasting helps you live longer and in better health. The advances achieved helped both scientists to be recognized last year with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award in the category of Biology and Biomedicine. “Who wants to live many more years?” he wonders. He has a clear answer: “I, of course, no.”
– Clarify it: did you find the key to eternal youth?
– The mTOR protein controls metabolism and is activated by food. We found that rapamycin, which is a drug that binds to mTOR, promotes calorie restriction, which prolongs life. That’s where the idea of the fountain of youth came from. But it’s fake, we don’t have it.
– Well, go! What a pity!
– The tests (related to aging) have only been done on animals. It is now being tested on dogs and monkeys, but it has never been tested on humans. There are ethical reasons not to do it, because it is not known if it will work in people. There are people who buy rapamycin online and take it. I don’t, I don’t bathe in that fountain.
– The question is for what. It is a philosophical question. The ideal would be a perfectly healthy life until, say, 85 or 90 years; and from one day to the next, paf!
– When will these findings become therapies that slow down or mitigate deterioration over time?
– The development of a drug requires clinical trials that require compliance with many rules, but aging is not a disease. It could only be studied with volunteers, outside all rules (ethics). Would you volunteer for such a trial?
– Honestly, I don’t think so.
– It would be about taking a medication that, who knows!, may cause undesirable side effects that we are not aware of and for years… And it does work!
– Delve into the mechanisms of cells, could it have irreversible effects on the brain?
– Sure, that’s why tests are done, to see if something works and if it has undesirable effects.
– So what is this knowledge good for?
– To know the mechanisms of aging and many of its associated diseases. Perhaps in the future the laws will change and we will be able to carry out clinical trials. Today it is not viable.
the end of cancer
– Do you have good news for Alzheimer’s patients and their families?
– Rapamycin is being tested in many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In addition, we know the mechanism by which it acts in the brain. It doesn’t work very well, but it delays the progression of Alzheimer’s for a few years.
– In the face of Alzheimer’s, it will not be enough to understand a single mechanism of action.
– Big pharmaceutical companies have failed many times. They have spent a lot…
– And, put to ask, what will happen with depression, psychosis, epilepsy, the different sclerosis…?
– Rapamycin is already used in young people with brain tumors and epilepsy; and also as an antidepressant. Now there are clinical trials in which it has been seen that it does not exactly control mTOR, but it does control proteins that use this pathway. This is going to come soon, and depression is one of the pathologies that is going to benefit from it.
– If we prevent cell aging, will cancer end?
– This is what scientists who study aging believe.
– How does the mTOR pathway act with what has been defined as controlled fasting?
– Inhibition of rapamycin has the same effect as caloric restriction. That is, inhibiting the mTOR protein has the same effect as not eating. It tricks the body into thinking that it hasn’t eaten. It would be the way to make caloric restriction much easier. It would be enough to take one pill per week or every other time.
– You are not a supporter…
– Scientific evidence is still lacking.
– Is controlled fasting a good idea?
– To live longer? I assure you that I personally like to eat. I would not want to prolong my life to suffer more, although I am in good health. I am very healthy. I exercise and fast a bit, but I never eat breakfast.
a miracle of science
– Will mTOR control mean the end of diabetes, overweight, obesity…?
– What you raise is not theory, we already know that; but being able to manipulate the mTOR protein is not the same as controlling these diseases. We are not there yet. Almost all the big pharmaceutical companies are trying to develop drugs that control the mTOR pathway.
– If it is achieved, would they avoid us from physical exercise?
– It could be, it depends on the objective. If it’s about not gaining weight, you may.
– Will the time lost in research due to the pandemic be recovered?
– I do not think so. We’ll pick up where we left off.
– What message would you like to convey to the people on the street?
– That science is very important. Without her, we wouldn’t even have the tape recorder you use for this interview. The pandemic has shown that without vaccines we would have witnessed a greater disaster. Ten years earlier there would have been many, many more deaths. Thanks to science, the whole world has witnessed a miracle.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.