An Elixir for Aging?
Dear Mr. Berko: Our neighbor is an engineer. He’s a bright, well-read 76-year-old, and he’s nobody’s fool. He was telling us about a drug called metformin, which he says delays the aches and pains of advancing age and postpones many of the devastating diseases that can come with age, such as heart disease, arthritis and cognitive decline. My wife and I don’t need the drug (yet), but I’d like to know what pharmaceutical company makes metformin and whether you’d buy the stock. I’ve had some good luck buying stock in drug companies you’ve recommended. Have you heard of this drug and how effective it is? — MB, Vancouver, Wash.
Dear MB: I may have a little bit more luck than the average investor picking drug stocks because there are some very wise medicine men in my circle of acquaintances. So every once in a while, I’ll get a firsthand update on a certain drug, the effectiveness of which fails, matches or exceeds expectations.
Metformin, first approved by the U.K. in 1957, is an oral diabetes medicine that helps diabetics control their blood sugar levels. It took our dismal Food and Drug Administration only 37 more years to approve metformin in the U.S. Resultantly, Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY-$72) began producing and marketing metformin in 1994. It’s prescribed primarily for patients with Type 2 diabetes and sometimes used in combination with insulin or other medications.
When I asked about metformin, two of those esteemed sources chuckled and suggested that your neighbor has fallen for the old Fountain of Youth scheme. This was the dream of Juan Ponce de Leon, the 4-foot-11-inch first governor of Puerto Rico, who believed it would bring him enormous wealth. And Ponce de Leon was a real ponce, too.
However, there are numerous early indications that your neighbor knows what he’s talking about. Metformin has demonstrated impressive efficacy in mitigating many of the effects of old age. Now gerontologists and the National Institutes of Health will be testing metformin, hoping it will ease the creaks, calamities and constraints of aging. Some of the ascribed results have been startling and quite dramatic. And because metformin has little or no history of side effects on humans or other animals, researchers at the NIH consider this drug to be the best choice among a group of considered drugs.
Therefore, Dr. Nir Barzilai, a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, will be testing metformin in a clinical trial, to be called Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME. Barzilai and his researchers will present metformin to thousands of patients who currently have one or two of three conditions: cancer, heart disease and cognitive impairment. The participants will be monitored to determine whether metformin remedies or heals the symptoms. Then a second group of research gerontologists will test metformin on 3,000 seniors at 14 aging centers around the U.S. According to Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, this trial will take six years — a really dumb waste of time — with half the seniors taking metformin and half receiving the placebo. Most urologists are familiar with metformin, which has also enjoyed superb success with prostate cancer patients. And researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center’s oncology unit are impressed with metformin’s positive outcomes in colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancers and multiple myeloma.
Metformin is sold under the brand names Glucophage, Fortamet, Riomet, Glumetza, Diabex and Obimet. There are many manufacturers; the U.S. patent expired in 2002. It is available in numerous generic versions and costs less than a penny a pill to produce. BMY owns most of the metformin market in the U.S., though it’s also produced by Mallinckrodt (MNK-$58), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA-$55), Mylan (MYL-$46), Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories (RDY-$47) and a dozen smaller pill mills. It’s as cheap as aspirin; 240 tablets (1,000 milligrams) will cost you only $12. Even if metformin is the elixir the medical community hopes it can be, there probably will be little profit for those owning stock in the manufacturers. But never, ever underestimate the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. If metformin has the expected curative potential, pharmaceutical lobbyists will bribe Congress to restrict its manufacturers so big pharma can raise the price to $100 a pill. But even at $100 a pop, those little pills could be worth it.
Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775, or email him at email@example.com. To find out more about Malcolm Berko and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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