When we have a headache or painful joints, the first thing that many of us reach for is ibuprofen, the common, over-the-counter painkiller that’s probably in your medicine cabinet. But it turns out that ibuprofen could have benefits far greater than curing your hangover: it could increase longevity. As described in PLOS Genetics, researchers found that regular doses of the drug extended the lifespan of yeast, worms and fruit flies in the lab. No, none of those are humans, or even mammals, but the fact that we see the same thing in different kingdoms of life raises the possibility that the same could be true for us.
Aging is the biggest risk factor for numerous serious diseases, such as cancer and dementia, so it’s no wonder that researchers are keen to delay it for the benefit of our health. Testing out drugs for their ability to increase lifespan is actually relatively easy, thanks to model organisms such as yeast and worms which are quick and simple to grow. But screening thousands of potential compounds is an arduous task, to say the least, and the results would be meaningless if candidates turn out to be toxic to humans. This is why scientists have started to focus their attention on drugs that are already used on humans.
One group of drugs that has piqued the interest of researchers recently is nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), which are used to treat pain, fever and inflammation. That’s because aging and inflammation are tightly integrated, although cause and effect are unclear at the moment. And it seems that scientists may be onto something as studies have already shown that aspirin is capable of extending the lifespan of worms in the lab. Another NSAID that researchers thought might be worth investigating is ibuprofen, which has already been shown to lower the risk of developing certain age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
To find out more, scientists from the Buck Institute and Texas A&M University administered doses of ibuprofen comparable to those used in humans to three diverse model organisms: yeast, worms and flies. They found that the drug increased the lifespan of all three species, indicating a conserved longevity effect. Yeast given the anti-inflammatory lived around 17% longer compared to controls, and the other two had their lifespans increased by around 10%. Furthermore, the organisms also appeared healthier.
Further examination in yeast also hinted at the likely mechanism behind the increase in longevity. They found that ibuprofen decreased the uptake of an amino acid—the building blocks of proteins—called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning it is essential for our life but cannot be synthesized by the body, and therefore must be obtained from our diet. The researchers discovered that ibuprofen destabilizes the membrane protein involved in transporting this amino acid into the cell, resulting in around a 15% decrease in tryptophan levels.
Of course, the work is proof of principle, so it doesn’t necessarily mean we will see the same in humans. However, the researchers think it’s worth pursuing more animal studies, starting off with mice. “We are not sure why this works,” lead scientist Michael Polymenis said in a news release, “but it’s worth exploring further.”