Imagine a pill that you could take every day that would extend your by years and keep you healthy for longer. You’d probably pay a lot for such a pill. Vladimir Skulachev looks like he is getting close to selling it to you. The global media has been a flutter with Skulachev’s recent announcement that he has developed a ‘cure for aging’. The Russian biochemist is the head of the Bioenergetics Department at Moscow State University and has been working on the problem of aging for 40 years. His cure is an anti-oxidant that he claims extends median lifespan and (if you’ll believe it) removed a cataract from his eye. We’ve seen some extraordinary claims in the last few years but a single substance that ‘cures aging’ seems almost impossible. Watch the video below to see Skulachev partially explain his work. It will be amazing if this development turns out to be even close to true.
First off, we should probably address whether or not this is a hoax. As far as I can tell, it is not. Skulachev has a long history of publications, many of which are heavily cited by other scientists. He holds a real position at a well respected university. He came up with, or at least coined, the Programmed-Aging Theory, which proposes that aging developed because it has evolutionary advantages. He’s also garnered the respect of noted biochemist and Nobel Laureate Gunter Blobel, as you can see at 1:08 in the video.
So, if it’s not a hoax…is it actually good science? There things get trickier. Skulachev hasn’t directly announced the formula for his ‘cure for aging’ compound. It is likely a derivative (or reproduction) of an earlier anti-oxidant substance called SKQ1. In earlier work Skulachev showed that SKQ1 could penetrate into mitochondria and affect oxidants (most antioxidants, including the ones in your health supplements, do not enter mitochondria in dose amounts). He and his colleagues then demonstrated that SKQ1 could extend the lives of fungus, crustaceans, insects, and mice. The latter is the most exciting, and Skulachev’s team claims to have extended median lifespan by 100% (the average mouse life was twice as long). All that’s well and good, but I’ve yet to see evidence that anyone has replicated Skulachev’s work, in mice or other animals. There’s always the possibility that these life extensions were statistical anamolies or the effect of uncontrolled factors.
Because Skulachev’s publications don’t show mice living greatly exaggerated lives, they show a population of mice who’s average lifespan was extended. Look at page 1336 of the report (page 8 of the PDF) to see what I mean. In other words, it’s not that SKQ1 would let you live to 200, it’s that it could help more people live to 100. The average would increase dramatically, not the maximum. Skulachev reports, however, that age-related ailments and impairments were seen less often in the SKQ1 mice. So maybe those years up to 100 would be healthier as well.
At best then, Skulachev’s SKQ1 wouldn’t be a ‘cure for aging’ but a means for all of us to age well. That may not be how the media hypes it, but I think that’s the better interpretation. Still, ‘cure’ or not, getting everyone to stay healthy into their advanced years (and helping everyone reach their advanced years) would be pretty damn cool.
Skulachev’s work continues. His anti-oxidant compounds (not sure if this means a new formula or just SKQ1) are being tested in Russia on humans in clinical trials, but as a treatment for glaucoma. I’ve no idea how a mitochondrial penetrating anti-oxidant compound is supposed to cure glaucoma, but there you go. As it would be very hard to test for life extension, such trials are probably only going to confirm safety for the compound. And, of course, whether or not they can cure glaucoma.
Hold on, I just want to take a reality check here. Anti-oxidants that cure glaucoma? That sounds really weird. Most treatments are based on relieving pressure, and some experiments are being done for drugs that affect bloodflow…but antioxidants? These sort of panacea claims don’t lend credence to Skulachev’s work as a whole.
Still, I can’t dismiss the signs that the biochemist has found a powerful way to fight the symptoms of aging. Honestly I don’t really want to. Those who read our coverage of the Methuselah Foundation know that many longevity researchers believe the path to longevity is going to require a complex approach. We’ve seen some single genes that might extend lifespan, but most techniques look to require multiple avenues of attack. Skulachev’s concept of a single substance to combat aging stands out. And in more ways than one. Most longevity researchers focus on either healing damage or extending maximum lifespan. Extending median lifespan, as Skulachev’s research shows, is a truly remarkable accomplishment especially if it preserves health at the same time. Imagine a world where everyone can live to 90 and feel healthy right up until they die. It’s an impressive possibility…if it turns out to be true.
[screen capture and video credit: Russia Today]
[source: Russia Today, Antonenko et al 2007 and Anismov et al 2008 in Biokhimiya]