The U.S. Military Is Testing a Pill That Could Delay Aging

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the organization that administers America’s Spec Ops forces, says it will soon start clinical trials of an “anti-aging pill” that could halt some naturally degenerative effects of aging.

“We have completed pre-clinical safety and dosing studies in anticipation of follow-on performance testing in fiscal year 2022,” Navy Commander Tim Hawkins, a SOCOM spokesperson, told Breaking Defense.

The pill involves what Hawkins called a “human performance small molecule” that will be fashioned into a nutraceutical form for both civilians and military personnel. He continued:

A small molecule is exactly what it sounds like: a molecule with low molecular weight. Pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca, who is not involved with the anti-aging pill—SOCOM’s partner is instead the private biotech lab MetroBiotech—explains:

So, all small molecules have low molecular weight, but not all small molecules are drugs by any means. In this case, a nutraceutical usually refers to a “dietary supplement” like a vitamin pill or an enriched protein powder. You might consider so-called “superfoods” to be nutraceuticals in the most technical sense.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate nutraceuticals, meaning they’re exempted from the rigorous standards that help to regulate prescription drugs, for example. Why wouldn’t the U.S. military run this substance through the right paces to become a regulated drug, especially when it’s already planning clinical trials, which are one of the key milestones to FDA approval? That’s all a bit unclear and subject to speculation for now.

The term “human performance small molecule” itself doesn’t mean much. Human performance is the sum total of nearly countless factors that could be involved, and we’ve discovered that small molecules are both just a descriptive term and something that covers most pharmaceutical drugs already. So what is the specific molecule here?

Breaking Defense says the molecule in question is something called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). MetroBiotech touts NAD+ as a treatment for mitochondrial diseases in particular. Mitochondria are organelles (cell parts) that we often call the factory or powerhouse of the cell because they produce energy for the cell. This is in the form of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

The cell needs ATP in order to keep functioning well, and NAD+ supports the continued manufacture of ATP inside the mitochondria. That’s the direct mechanism at play, and there are consequences when cells have reduced NAD+ levels across the board. MetroBiochem elaborates:

The mitochondrial diseases that MetroBiochem seeks to treat are devastating, but they’re also rare and specific—not treating otherwise healthy people with a substance that will allegedly slow the effects of aging, period. That could go a long way to explaining why SOCOM is calling this a “nutraceutical” project rather than a prescription drug.

Aging itself isn’t yet a diagnosable disease to be treated by prescription. Products like Botox or cataract surgery handle side symptoms of aging that are specific and treatable.

MetroBiochem is a private offshoot of David Sinclair’s work in his eponymous Harvard University laboratory. Sinclair says the cure-all nature of the NAD+ molecule is by design, not a flaw. “This radical new thinking about medicine maintains that if we can address the upstream cause of these diseases, we can cure them all at once (instead of relying on the current Whack-a-Mole approach),” Boston magazine reported in 2019.

All speculation and skepticism aside, what are the ways that anti-aging could help support the careers of U.S. military personnel? MetroBiotech lists some key organ functions it says are supported by its technology, claiming the tech could help slow neurodegeneration, decrease inflammation in the body, increase “cardioprotection,” and more.

MetroBiotech also says NAD+ can reduce the functional effects of aging on the body, which is where factors like speed and reaction time come in. But clinical trials will go a long way to confirm what is or isn’t going to be treated by NAD+, which the military has already “spent $2.8 million on” since 2018, Hawkins said.

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