With their latest breakthrough, pharmaceutical giant Novartis is not just making medical advances, but may be on path to mythological proof.
Over the weekend, the Swiss drug-maker announced the latest promising results of the bacterial agent rapamycin in combating age. Rapamycin is primarily used to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs. It is now being tested for its effects on prolonging life, but its origins may be as interesting as its potential.
Rapamycin is named after Easter Island (native name Rapa Nui), where the compound was originally discovered in 1972. Easter Island, of course, is famous for its Moai statues and the mystery surrounding the island’s inhabitants. What caused this industrious island civilisation to perish at its zenith?
Common theory has it they killed each other off in tribal warfare or succumbed to epidemics. But rapamycin may provide the biological foundation for another explanation. Perhaps this was a people blessed with unusual long life, but for some reason the source of their longevity suddenly dwindled, eventually to cease entirely and seal the fate of this once proud people?
This theory is eerily reminiscent of Tolkien’s description of Númenor, the island west of Middle-earth, the greatest realm of Men.
According to legend, Númenoreans became jealous of the home of the immortal elves to the west, where Men were forbidden to travel. The Moai statues of Easter Island reflect this longing, always gazing out to sea. Eventually their lust became their downfall; seduced by Sauron, the King of Númenor sailed west to fight the elves – unsuccessfully. According to Tolkien, Sauron fled east to Middle-earth, but the large island of Númenor was removed from the world forever. But what if a small part remains, in what we call Easter Island?
Númenoreans were famous for their life-spans. Aragorn, as the last of the Númenoreans, lived three times as long as other Men of Middle-earth. Rapamycin could be the explanation for this. The White Tree Nimloth stood in Númenor, tied to the fate of its people. A fruit of this tree became the White Tree of Gondor, which also gave the citizens of Gondor unusual long life. Could it be that what modern science calls rapamycin is in fact a descendant of the very same tree?
Obviously, Novartis will never admit to this connection. But the marketing opportunities would be tremendous.