Chloroquine: Can This Antimalarial Drug Have Anti-Aging Benefits?

Chloroquine has been known for preventing and treating malaria, but scientists are now discovering a potential efficacy to aid in longevity. For more than 80 years, this prescription medication has been used as an antimalarial and anti-inflammatory drug, then the coronavirus hit.

Key takeaways:

With its potential efficacy to treat COVID-19 with hospitalized patients, chloroquine (or hydroxychloroquine) has gone under more research investigating its mechanism of action. It turns out there was more that had yet to be discovered.

While there are still debates regarding its application with COVID-19, scientists have found promising evidence in animal models on how it might help with increasing lifespan.

What is chloroquine?

Chloroquine is a prescription-only antimalarial medicine, but it has been found to be a productive anti-inflammatory agent in rheumatoid arthritis and systemic and discoid lupus erythematosus. It’s also been used to treat infections caused by certain parasites (amoebae).

The history of chloroquine dates to the 17th century in South America. Its natural form, known as quinine, was first found in the bark of the Cinchona tree. Throughout the next couple of hundred years, it was used to ease intermittent fever and shivers. Little did they know what may have been malaria at the time.

Synthetic chloroquine was first developed in 1934 by a German scientist from Bayer, Hans Andersag, for treating malaria. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a widely prescribed drug. Yet its efficacy is still inconclusive as some parts of the world and malaria cases show resistance to chloroquine.

Today, it’s prescribed for both children and adults in tablets. However, studies are ongoing to shed light on its application beyond antimalarial and anti-inflammatory properties — extending lifespan being one of them.

An animal-based study published in “Protein & Cell” that looked at low-dose chloroquine treatment already showed early but promising results. Researchers of that study found that “low-dose CQ prolonged lifespan, repressed systemic inflammation, and inhibited fibrosis across multiple tissue types in aged rats.” More on this below.

Chloroquine mechanism of action

Chloroquine’s anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties come from its ability to impact and decrease the acidity of the cell and inhibit cytokine production. Therefore, viruses and parasites fail to reproduce and spread in a high pH alkaline cellular environment, hence its success against malaria and, in some cases, COVID-19.

While chloroquine has been found to inhibit autophagy, a mechanism through which your body recycles old and zombie cells, it’s also been found to be involved in the regulation of cell death.

If we extrapolate, while autophagy has been found as a key mechanism in longevity, with a decrease in cellular death, there’s a decreased need for autophagy.

Despite the wide range of studies done with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, insights into their mechanism of action are still emerging. Questions regarding dosage, side effects, and interaction with other drugs are still unanswered.

Chloroquine and longevity

Because chloroquine plays a role in regulating cell death, a group of researchers in Beijing investigated how low-dose chloroquine may have anti-aging benefits. They conducted a study on naturally-aged rats with a dose of 0.1 mg/kg twice a week. Such a dose was at least 100-fold lower than previously used in rodent studies.

Their findings concluded that low-dose chloroquine administration extended the lifespan of rats “13% in terms of maximum longevity.”

The authors reported results indicating how low chloroquine concentrations “alleviated stem cell senescence, repressed tissue fibrosis, and extended lifespan. Collectively, our data, together with others, indicate that CQ [chloroquine] has beneficial roles in reducing chronic inflammation and tissue fibrosis, which could be harnessed to treat different age-related diseases.”

Previous studies have found chloroquine treatment to be beneficial in alleviating liver fibrosis in mice induced by carbon tetrachloride via the inhibition of autophagy pathways.

Cell death, fibrosis, and inflammation are three major contributors to aging as they decrease overall organ and cell functioning and increase oxidative stress. This study could pave the way for the potential of low-dose chloroquine treatment for targeting various longevity pathways, but more and longer studies are needed to build a stronger case for its efficacy.

Chloroquine and COVID-19

Due to its ability to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokine production and create an alkaline state within the cell, scientists have been optimistic about its potential to treat SARS-COV2 and suppress hyperinflammation.

Chloroquine’s potential role in impacting intracellular calcium channels may also prevent viral RNA duplication, thus preventing the worsening of COVID-19.

The issue has been that a lot of these benefits regarding the coronavirus were found in vitro, meaning in a lab, and not through human clinical trials.

Because of the wide range of side effects concerning heart health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cautioned physicians from prescribing chloroquine in 2020 and issued an Emergency Use Authorization to be used only with hospitalized patients under heart monitoring or in clinical trials.

How to take chloroquine

Chloroquine is administered orally based on diagnoses and the patients’ weight. Patients must consult with their doctor regarding allergies, dosage, potential side effects, and interactions with other medications.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s a long list of other medications that may impact the recommended dosage, increase the risk of side effects, and whether chloroquine can be taken together with them at all.

When traveling to a malaria-impacted region, doctors may prescribe chloroquine to be taken one to two weeks prior to the trip, during the stay, and four to eight weeks after returning home. It’s recommended to take the medicine on the same day each week and never miss a dose.

Possible side effects of chloroquine

According to WebMD, the medication is widely prescribed, and while most people don’t experience serious side effects, there is a long list of symptoms to be cautious of and be aware of the danger of overdosing.

Possible side effects of chloroquine can be severe and include but not limited to:

  • Heart failure;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Kidney failure;
  • Low blood sugar;
  • Hearing changes;
  • Muscle weakness;
  • Vision problems.

Due to its anti-aging potential, there is still a long way to go to see whether chloroquine will be set on a similar path and undergo long-term human trials as other prescription drugs, such as metformin or rapamycin. However, for now, it continues to be a drug for treating malaria and other viral and inflammatory infections and is not prescribed for the purpose of anti-aging and longevity.

It’s too early to tell how various doses might impact human physiology long term. The side effects are vast, and its complete mechanism of action remains to be fully understood. There are plenty of animal and human clinical trials needed before we can take it as a pill and expect a longer life.

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