A human being is programmed to ageing and death. The ageing and death program is hidden in a mitochondrion (plural mitochondria), a small organelle, variants of which are found in most cells of the human body. Mitochondria are microscopic creatures that work hard round the clock. Mitochondria are often described as “cellular power plants” because they daily convert 400 liters of oxygen into energy via the process of oxidative phosphorylation. Not unlike any other production facility, mitochondria also produce some waste materials in the process. About half a liter of superoxide radicals, an extremely toxic substance, is generated as a by-product of oxidative phosphorylation. The toxic superoxide radicals can irrevocably damage mitochondrial DNA and mitochondrial membranes. The presence of antioxidants (chemicals that prevent the oxidization of other chemicals) in the system can help reduce the damage done by free radicals to body’s own cells. However, many antioxidants including vitamin C and vitamin E cannot accomplish their mission because they get damaged themselves while protecting molecules against the impact of free radicals. Besides, antioxidants cannot get into mitochondria for a number of reasons.
A group of Russian scientists led by Academician Vladimir Skulachev created a powerful antioxidant, dubbed the Skulachev ion, which is thought to be capable of entering the mitochondria and stays there preventing damage to DNA. Perhaps the invention is an “anti-age” drug that may help combat age-related diseases and prolong a human life span.
May the blind see the light again
The experiments on lab animals involving the use of an antioxidant based on the Skulachev ion (SkO) have been successfully completed. The experiments indicate that the antioxidant can prevent 12 age-related diseases. However, scientists are now certain only about the benefits of the antioxidant shown during the Age-Related Eye Disease Study conducted on animals. The study demonstrated excellent results with regard to the treatment of cataract and retina dystrophy. A 20-year-old horse regained sight after being blind for eight years. Nine out of thirteen sightless dogs regained sight; three out of four blind cats and six rabbits out of six blind rabbits could see the light again. The drug was administered as eye drops. The experiments on 600 lab mice showed that the drug proved effective in combating and preventing age-related eye diseases.
Eighteen research centers and organizations in Russia and U.S. take part in the research. Clinical trials of the drug should take part in some Moscow hospitals in the near future. The trials will be conducted not only in ophthalmologic clinics but in hospitals for cardiovascular and cancer patients. Scientists believe that SkO-based drugs can be also used effectively for treating various age-related diseases.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the effect of the drug on humans proved to be less effective than those shown in the experiments on animals. The human body is somewhat different,” says Academician Skulachev. He sounds extremely cautious. “Let’s wait for the results of clinical trials. Right now I can tell you that the substance is non-carcinogenic and doesn’t trigger any side effects in the system. It’s quite an important quality as far as I’m concerned,” adds he.
“I assume you’ve got lots of volunteers who are ready and willing to get a shot of you ion?”
“That’s correct. I receive tons of letters every day. But I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
“Are you ready to test the drug on you own body?”
“I’d never hesitate in doing so,” says Skylachev with a smile.
Anti-age drug for the masses
“Mr. Skulachev, let’s imagine that your project is a success. An anti-age drug is in place. Who’s going to use it? Will it be affordable only for a handful of super-rich tycoons, the oligarchs? There must be a reason why one of those oligarchs is financing your project.”
“I’m confident that the drug will be affordable to many people. Indeed, the substance is quite complex but it doesn’t require multistage synthesis. It won’t be in short supply. Speaking of oligarchs, I don’t think Oleg Deripaska is a typical example of the group. He graduated from the Moscow State University ; he is a member of the university’s council of trustees. Deripaska invests in many research projects. You know, the oligarchs differ. One of them is more interested in buying Chelsea football club while another one is keen to put his money into scientific progress. Some skeptics in Deripaska’s team initially referred to our project as “The Dead Rat.” Deripaska apparently didn’t like the attitude and said: ‘Even if the project is a flop, the University will get a nice laboratory anyway’.”
“But Deripaska is a businessman in the first place, so profit is his top priority, isn’t it?
“Right you are, he hopes to gain profits if we’re lucky to get things done. We might as well fail to score. I put it like that while speaking to him the other day: ‘Maybe we’ll fail to produce an anti-age drug that works wonders but we’re surely get a remedy for removing hangnails’.”
700 years is not the limit
“Scientists have located a gene responsible for the process of ageing. Probably scientists should give it a try and simply ‘turn it off’?”
“I don’t believe that scientists are up to such a task presently.”
“How long will man live if your ion should work as planned?”
“I’d say that man might live up to 800 years.”
“Goodness! Such a long life span is likely to create enormous problems for the planet! Earth will be overpopulated, and environment will suffer a devastating impact. Maybe the invention will end up under lock and key because people want to be on the safe side?
“I believe your fears are completely groundless. We see ageing as a disease that can be treated. So why on earth should they keep a medicine classified? It’s simply can’t be done, for a start. The Russians managed to synthesize it, so why the Americans can’t do the same? We set the ball in motion. Besides, keeping it dark doesn’t seem a very patriotic attitude to me. The discovery is a matter of national pride, don’t you think?”
“Where do you think all those long-lived people will live then?”
“I believe politicians will have to address this issue once an anti-age drug is on hand. I’m not a politician, I’m a scientist. Maybe a law will be passed to limit the childbearing age.”
“Something like ‘you’re banned from having children after reaching 600’?”
“I’d say a 50-year limit looks more reasonable. Besides, are you sure that each and every one would like to live a very long life? We’re not talking about immortality. We should take into account such things as epidemics, infections, accidents, wars and natural disasters. Besides, some new diseases are likely to come to light even if cancel ageing. We may succeed in destroying one program responsible for ageing. But what if we fail to take care of other similar programs? To me, these are pure speculations based on an admission of numerous factors. It doesn’t make sense in terms of science,” concludes Skulachev.
“Could the problem of extending life span will eventually turn into the problem of extending old age?”
“We aim to extend a life span of the humans. Nature has a lot of species which can stay young for a long time, so to speak. Some large sea birds can live without growing old for 50 years. They are virtually young when they die suddenly one day. The Greenland whale’s life span is 200 years. A giant turtle can live even longer than that. In fact, it doesn’t die of age-related factors; it dies only because its shell becomes too heavy as years go by.”
Being youthful and active at 75?
“When do you think man will need to be treated with the drug to stop the ageing process?”
“Perhaps the drug should be administered during pregnancy. However, anti-age treatment at 50 can’t be ruled out.
“Will the drug be used for making cosmetic creams?”
“Cosmetic applications seem perfect for the drug because of it’s a powerful antioxidant.”
“What is your opinion about therapy based on the use of stem cells?”
“Unfortunately, there is no such kind of treatment in this country. It’s just a way of cheating patients out of their money.”
“What would you recommend to use to stop ageing while your drug is still in the works?”
“Use antioxidants that are already available.”
“Don’t you feel a bit scared because the wonder drug might turn the world upside down?
“I do feel scared thinking about all our efforts that may end in failure because we made a mistake or two. That’s my biggest fear.”
Translated by Guerman Grachev