Metformin for cancer prevention, longevity: popular in Silicon Valley

The drug is thought to mimic some of the positive effects of calorie restriction by lessening the amount of sugar the body produces and absorbs. Calorie restriction is a huge challenge for people to maintain, as it involves eating a lot less over a long period of time, but some studies have shown that it can help to extend the human life span.

Poler, alongside his doctor, has reviewed the research on metformin and talked to other friends in the medical fields about the potential downsides of his $2-a-month habit.

“Some people told me it was a slam dunk for its anti-aging effects,” he adds, over coffee in San Francisco. “And some were skeptical, but most gave it a thumbs up that it’s fairly safe.”

The side effects associated with prolonged metformin use include diarrhea, slow blood sugar, and abdominal pain. The most serious risk is that excessive acid accumulates in the body, causing a condition known as lactic acidosis.

Poler hasn’t experienced any of these side effects, so he intends to continue taking it for the long-term.

Others who take metformin maintain that it’s already benefiting them.

“I followed the mounting evidence, then when a biotech investor friend Bob Nelsen (Nelsen, of Arch Venture Partners, regularly takes 500mg of the diabetes drug metformin for its anti-aging effect) told me he was taking it, I had a discussion with my physician and reviewed the studies,” explained Zen Chu, a prominent angel investor. “Even though I’m not pre-diabetic, it was low-risk so I tried it and I could rapidly feel that improved my metabolism as well. “

All of them agree that metformin’s effects have been under-studied, in part because there isn’t much of a financial incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to research the impact of an extremely cheap, generic drug. That could explain why doctors don’t routinely recommend it to people without diabetes, and why metformin hasn’t made it into the mainstream.

Medical experts said they have mixed feelings about whether people without diabetes should take the drug, in light of this lack of research.

“Theoretically someone can take it without diabetes, as there are some known side effects but they’re usually tolerated if the patient gradually increases dosage over time,” said Greg Burrell, a practicing physician and the co-founder of Carbon Health, a start-up with a chain of medical clinics across the Bay Area.

Burrell said he wouldn’t “block” a patient from taking it, but he would also educate them about the lack of human data. Animal trials can be useful, but humans and mice often react differently to medications so it’s not enough to prove safety and efficacy.

“I would suggest to my patients to wait for more human results,” he said.

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