The overwhelming majority of animal and plant species do grow old indeed: the organism starts to function worse than before, stops reproducing, catches up various diseases and, finally, dies. Ageing is necessary from the evolution point of view: ageing living things become noncompetitive and give way to the young. According to the most clear definition, “ageing of the organism is weakening of its vital functions in the course of time, thus increasing the probability of death”.
However, non-aging living creatures do exist in the world, points out V.P. Skulachev. For example, gigantic turtles can live for two hundred years, they preserve the ability to reproduction and continue to grow, and they die because their shell becomes too heavy to move and get food. Albatrosses live for about 50 years without aging and die suddenly. The Greenland whale lives for about 200 years. All these animals evolve very slowly, but they even do not need evolution. Other examples demonstrate that aging is caused by some external necessity. The Pacific salmon begins to grow old rapidly right after spawning is completed, fish die, thus attracting numerous maxillopods, which for their turn serve as food to fry. And the Atlantic salmon can prolong its active life owing to a parasite – pearl-oyster larva – settled in it.
It appears from this, believes V.P. Skulachev, that ageing is a program, which may be slowed down or cancel completely. This is the global target of the research work under the project sponsored by the Russian-Asian Investment Company (RAInKo) under control of Oleg Deripaska. This international project involves 32 research groups, more than 210 persons altogether, including several young researchers who returned to Russia from foreign laboratories.
It seems that if researchers strive to cancel the ageing program, they should start acting at the genome level. Such experiments are already being carried out: researchers have found the gene, switching off of which prolongs the life of the nematode worm and the laboratory mouse. But “we do not want to interfere in the human genome, because this can cause unexpected consequences”, says V.P. Skulachev. The researchers decided to interfere not in the program itself, but in its execution at the very early stage. At this stage, aging is connected with accumulation of free radicals in the organism, this taking place initially in the mitochondrion - a power substation of a cell. The SkQ substance synthesized in the course of the research, acts as a very efficient antioxidant, which is fighting against free radical oxygen at the mitochondria level.
Hundreds of antioxidants are already being applied in the world, but not all of them are efficient as they get quickly destroyed. The peculiarity of a new substance is that the so-called “Skulachev’s ion” (the name was given by foreign colleagues) is part of it, the ion penetrating through the cell’s membrane and accumulating inside mitochondria thanks to its positive charge (the charge inside the mitochondrion is negative). This ion “drags” behind itself the proper antioxidant part. The result is that the substance saves mitochondria’s lipids from oxidation.
The SkQ influence on the life span was studied in experiments on mice. Laboratory mice were given to drink “life-giving water” with SkQ, the substance being contained in this water in nanodoses (5 nanomoles). The life time of such mice increased by one third on average as compared to that of the reference group mice. Even more demonstrative are experiments with mutant rats, where accelerated ageing – progeria – was observed. SkQ prolonged their life span by three times, besides, it cured them from a large number of senile diseases. They include infarctions, strokes, osteoporosis, hemogram abnomality, reproductive system disorders, behavior change, visual impairment.
The latter is interesting to dwell on in more detail as the SkQ drug successfully fights against cataract and retinal degeneration only of animals so far. Moreover, it does not only prevent but also cures the disease, ophthalmologists being unable yet to explain the phenomenon. The list of animals that regained their sight after the SkQ instillation into the eyes includes dogs, cats, rabbits and a horse. However, these animals are not numerous so far – they are 19 altogether. In the film shot by the researchers, owners of dogs and cats bring out clearly how their pets became blind, and the 2-3 week course of treatment turned out to be sufficient to recover their vision. “It is still early to discuss how this drug will affect human eyes, says V.P. Skulachev. But we have scheduled clinical trials for 2007.” He emphasizes that at the stage of complete loss of sight, when ophthalmologists do not give any hope, there is nothing to lose, and one may not be afraid of possible side effects.
It remains only to wish the researchers good luck in continuation of their effort, and the entire humanity – to obtain in the future if not immortality but the extension of active life.
Nadezda Markina | alfa
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