For most myeloma patients, the idea of good health and longevity may seem like a distant dream. So, why talk about these things? Because, no matter what diagnosis or challenge we’ve been given, most of us still strive to achieve the best health and the longest life possible. Occasionally, that makes us susceptible to purveyors of magic bullets who promise to deliver good health and extended life, based on questionable science. But the good news is there are some very sound ways to achieve both.
Something called the Longevity Fund has recently been in the news. A young scientific celebrity, Laura Deming, originally from New Zealand, participated in the recent Milken Institute Global Conference, encouraging companies to invest in developing anti-aging therapies. Currently 23 years old, Ms. Deming has already acquired research credentials from several prestigious labs, including working with pioneering anti-aging researcher Dr. Leonard Guarente of MIT. The Longevity Fund website proclaims that it is “asking questions on the frontiers of biology” and looking for drugs and biologic agents to increase the human lifespan.
The Blue-Zone approach
Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest,” about whom I’ve written in the past, was asked what he thought about using drugs to extend life. He said, “If the goal is to lengthen life expectancy… there are much better investments to be made, and cheaper and easier ways to do it.” He was referring to the idea that getting and staying healthy is what matters, a concept rooted in his experience in the “Blue Zones.” These are places around the world where eating real (unprocessed) food, exercising, avoiding pollution, and avoiding or reducing stress make a difference and can allow people to live beyond 100 years.
It is important to note that the opposite strategy, as proposed by the Longevity Fund, has been a serious failure so far, despite considerable research and development efforts. An earlier pioneer, an Australian scientist named David Andrew Sinclair, also worked in the famous Guarente Lab and came up with the idea to use resveratrol-type agents to activate the sirtuin pathway as an anti-aging approach. This was in the early 2000s, more than 10 years ago now. But using SRT501, which is a formulation of resveratrol and, interestingly, active against myeloma, did not work out, and various companies involved have gone back to the drawing board. But we can all have resveratrol in many natural sources, including red wine, which I have also discussed in the past.
Negative or appropriately skeptical?
Another sobering story, recounted recently on “60 Minutes” and summarized by STAT News, is the rise and fall of a company called Theranos. Founder Elizabeth Holmes developed and promoted a small lab device able to quickly run a large number of lab tests. The trouble was the device didn’t really work that well and basically had to be withdrawn. But the hype surrounding “biomedical innovation” allowed Theranos to grow and thrive until the results (or lack of results) came in. As evidenced by the Longevity Fund, biomedical hype is not in short supply. Being cautious is not being negative, only appropriately skeptical.
Getting and staying healthy while fighting myeloma
How can we create “Blue Zones” in America? Dan Buettner has been working on that in several locations, including Albert Lea, Minnesota, where, with implementation of healthy eating, exercise, and weight loss, city officials reported a 40 percent drop in health care costs! This is the theme of lead articles (subscription required) in the April 28th issue of The Economist. The writers make the case for universal healthcare, which is sensible, effective, and affordable. Two countries implementing universal healthcare are Chile and Costa Rica, where the governments spend about 13 percent of what America does per person on healthcare and have similar life expectancies. America is the only large, rich country without universal healthcare. The U.S. is described as “the land of the free,” but healthcare is certainly not free. The fundamental issue is that healthcare in America is still considered a “luxury” rather than a moral and ethical necessity. This philosophy needs to change.
The benefits of staying healthy
A new study of childhood leukemia raises the possibility of preventing leukemia. Quite remarkable! This very important study in Nature Reviews Cancer, authored by respected British cancer researcher, Dr. Mel Greaves, presents a new “unified theory” of childhood leukemia. The simple and compelling details have broad implications, including for myeloma, to which the theory can easily be applied.
Dr. Greaves posits that if certain mutations of bone marrow cells exist, then infections can trigger the leukemia. Infections early in life are protective. In their absence, later infections trigger critical secondary mutations. I cannot do justice to all the details in this blog, but I will follow up to explain how exactly it works in causing leukemia and the very similar pattern of events which may well occur in triggering myeloma.
A very important point is that in the current state of global health, there is not only the risk of toxic chemicals causing mutations, but the high risk of global infections—both dangerous in and of themselves, and in triggering cancer. A well-studied cluster of leukemia was attributed to a localized swine flu outbreak. It is of note that although the U.S. government recently contributed $7 million to fight a recent Ebola outbreak, it is very alarming to learn that there is a simultaneous plan to eliminate the office of Global Health Security at the U.N. National Security Council. Unfortunately, the U.S. and other nations need more infection security, not less.
A related piece of disconcerting news is that yesterday Senate lawmakers failed to pass legislation to encourage the development of new antibiotics, which are urgently needed. Apparently, antibiotics are rarely moneymakers for drug makers, so significant incentives are required to promote new development. Hopefully, some development will continue before the next crisis of resistant bacteria emerges.
Bottom line for now
- Staying and getting healthier are the best ways to live longer.
- Linked to specific patterns of mutation, infections may turn out to be very important trigger factors in leukemia, as well as myeloma. More to come…
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.