Vladimir Skulachev: Ageing Can Be Treated Like a Disease

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The Dean of Faculty of Bioengineering & Bioinformatics of the Moscow State University told The Village magazine how scientists can prolong human life in future.

”Mitochondrial antioxidant” an unpronounceable combination of words, or SkQ1 (i.e., Skulachev ions) is a compound which can prolong and improve human life. This long-term development is being tested in a human model now. Vladimir Skulachev (member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Head of Belozerskii Scientific Research Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology of the Moscow State University, Dean of Faculty of Bioengineering & Bioinformatics of the Moscow State University), the author, told The Village whether scientists have learnt to prolong life and how science will help to avoid derogatory old age

Long Life and Elixir of Youth

– Is it true that your SkQ1 ions can delay ageing?

– Yes, they can do it to some extent, if everything works well. We influence on toxic forms of oxygen (i.e., an ageing stimulator) produced in mitochondria; their level increases in age-dependent manner. However, our ions (such as SkQ1 Visomitin, Exomitin, MitoVitan) neutralize these toxic compounds.

– How have you concluded that mitochondrial-focused action is of importance and they are directly responsible for ageing?

 – Not us but Denham Harman, an American scientist, advanced a theory that ageing is caused by body intoxication with its own toxic forms of oxygen produced by mitochondria away back in the 70s. Mitochondria are sort of cell heat power plants. Ageing induces an increasing production of toxic forms of oxygen which I call a cell’s ”Samurai sword”. It should be knocked from ”hands” of a cell intended to kill itself and, in turn, to accelerate ageing. We think that ageing is a disease treatable by common drugs.

– Can your compound really do it?
How does it influence on cells?

– This is a synthetic unnatural substance that we called SkQ1. It consists of two parts representing a so-called Skulachev ion (SkQ+) and a strong herbal antioxidant (i.e., plastoquinone (Q)) connected by a carbon atom chain. The positive compound penetrates into mitochondria because this is the one cellular part with negative inner space. So, this is a common physical phenomenon. Then, the compound neutralizes toxic forms of oxygen.

 – Are there any particular evidences that it really works?

– We tested it in various mammals, fungi, plants and invertebrates.
 Almost all studies demonstrated substantially longer life resulted from very small doses of SkQ1.

– How long is ”substantially longer”?

 – It varies depending on species. For example, the drug doubled lifetime of mice (i.e., the highest increase in lifetime ever).
Almost the same result was obtained in entomostracans, and lower value was observed in Drosophilae (about 15%). As for mouse model, we asked Vladimir Anisimov, the Chairman of the Russian Society of Gerontologists, to perform the first experiments in the Institute of Oncology in Saint-Petersburg. Due to permanent lack of money and funds to maintain vivarium, mice became infected with various diseases and died promptly. Despite a dirty vivarium caused several infections leading to death of experimental mice, animals administered with our compound survived. Moreover, these mice remained fertile to the last. Also, they had another appearance. If we compare two mice of the same brood and age, we will see that one who was administered with SkQ1 looks really young demonstrating smooth hair, absence of stoop and rich whiskers. In contrast, the second one has all the age-related signs (i.e., a hump, low mobility, bald patches and absence of whiskers). 

– But what was their cause of death?

– Breast cancer. We tested female mice of the strain prone to the disease. Moreover, this type of cancer is resistant to our drug.

If we compare two mice of the same brood and age, we will see that one who was administered with SkQ1 looks really young demonstrating smooth hair, absence stoop and rich whiskers.

– So, SkQ can affect several carcinomas, can’t it?

 – Yes, it can. Nevertheless, this is just a mouse-related phenomenon now. Studies in a human model started 6 months ago. Now we are evaluating the drug safety. In general, the research will include three phases. Then, small short-term efficiency study and large long-term study will be performed. Two parallel studies are conducted in the USA and Russia (The 1st City Hospital). They will last for 2 years more.

 – So, what comes next? Will the drug become commercially available?

 – Yes, it will be an elixir…

 – Do you mean elixir of youth?

– Yes, I do. The major problem is that, in terms of medicine, ageing cannot be treated and, in turn, ageing medicine does not exist. That’s why the Ministry of Healthcare is unlikely to approve ”the elixir of youth”. Most likely, it will be presented as a geriatric drug and, as a whole, we will not advertise it as an anti-ageing drug. The fact is that this is a highly compromised area with plenty of quacks trying to make money with credulous people. Besides, a common geriatrician’s (Ed. note: professionals who treat elderly patients) adage goes that thousands of people worked towards immortality, but all of them died. Although Genghis Khan spent a fortune on wise men who are able to prolong his life, he dead. Stalin was fond of writings created by Alexander Bogomolets, a gerontological scientist. However, when the 65-year-old gerontologist dead in 1946, the General Secretary slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed ”This son of bitch has deceived me!”

I’ll bet you anything that not body ageing but an order to die causes human death; so, this slow process is induced.

– Are you sceptical about you are doing?

– The goal is so sacred that we must use at least some kind of chance to achieve it. Indeed, the horror is not even a death itself but its derogatory nature. Namely, a man who was a sovereign yesterday can’t even set a spoon to his lips today.

– So, if everything goes to plan, people will stop being sick beyond longer life, won’t they?

– Yes, they will. We have already found that SkQ1-administered mice experienced less common memory loss and reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. Nothing matters but better human life and longer working capacity. It is profitable to government because elderly people represent a great burden on country.

 – The elixir should be used permanently, shouldn’t it? Should we start to use it in elderly age or younger?

– Yes, it should be used continuously. When should you start? That’s a good question. According to studies in Drosophilae, we found that our compound administered within the first week of their 2-month life results in increased lifetime. If we start the therapy in a month, 7-day administration course won’t be enough and SkQ1 should be added to food permanently. It is not necessarily right that a human will respond similarly to a fly. That’s why, we are focused on clinical trials in a human model.

 – Can we talk about the fact that the compound is absolutely safe?

 – Ideally, the drug should be tested in a human model for 2 years. However, I use SkQ1 for 4 years because, as an inventor, I have such a right. So, I have not observed any adverse effects. I can state for a fact that the drug use results ib increasing working ability and more energy. Considering my own age (81 years), it’s tough to tell about other things.

– How affordable will be the drug? What if only rich people will be able to prolong their lives and poor ones will die as before?

– The elixir will be affordable. Nevertheless, I don’t know the price because we are not businessmen to sell it by ourselves. Instead, we enter into agreements with several companies collaborating with pharmacies. SkQ1 is a cheap substance taken in super-small doses. Eye drops were the first our drug based on these ions. Recommended to patients with dry eye syndrome and cataract, they are commercially available in pharmacies. Similarly to SkQ1, these drops affect mitochondria. A while back I used them to cure my cataract.

Developing a similar veterinary drug, we calculated that only 4 g of the compound per a year will be enough to treat all the Russian pets with age-related eye disorders. Investors were very upset at that time. They thought that we’ll built an entire factory and start production, but our compound can be synthesized just in a small room. Since it is accumulated in mitochondria only, it acts in extremely small concentrations.

 – So, the drug will be affordable for all the people in spite of their social standing, won’t it?

– In general, I wish I can add it to salt similarly to iodine. Not the Chukchi but the Swiss were former subjects of jokes because of high percentage of cretinous people. I mean medical term telling us about consequences of thyroid disorders induced by iodine deficiency. Situation changed dramatically when they started to add some iodine to salt. This is the way I propose to add our ions to salt, prolonging human life.

– It seems to be a great humanitarian mission. Do you think that officials and investors will support you? Why our government has not already jumped all over your developments?

 – We are clever enough to keep it all in silence till completion of the work. Along with this, our drug aroused investors’ interest. Oleg Deripaska gave us a purse till 2008. Due to this only, we purchased appropriate equipment to start a research. Also, I’ve managed to involve several scientists who left the country a while back. So, we hired flats and accommodated them. Although about 300 professionals worked at our Mitochondrial Engineering Scientific Research Institution of the Moscow State University at its best, approximately 100 of them are working there now. Business has tough times now. Since 2009 Rosnano and a private investor (a Moscow State University-educated programmer) help us. However, investments will lapse on January 01, 2017. So, we’ll have to derive income from eye drops and another cosmetic product (i.e., Mitovitan).

 – Can you tell us more about the latter?

 – This is a serum to prevent skin ageing which is also potent against several inflammations (including even ones resistant to other methods). Now we arrange several trials in Moscow.

Long Liver’s Mentality and Immortality

 – All this sounds fantastically. However, how to deal with mentality? Our body clock will continue starting a ”countdown”, won’t it?

– Yes, it will. Despite its performance, ”ageing signal” will be ignored. In other words, it delivers an ageing order to a cell who is ready to obey but the ”Samurai sword” (i.e., toxic forms of oxygen) is absent. I’ll bet you anything that not body ageing but an order to die causes a human death; so, this process is induced and slowly increases in age-dependent manner. However, this presentation is not suitable for all the animals. For example, albatrosses die within a day. They live as healthy beings for 60 years. There are no any signs of ageing because the elder a bird is, the longer a flight is and the stronger wings are. Then, albatrosses die suddenly at one point.

 – Do you believe in psychosomatics? Do you think that all the diseases are caused by our mind and, roughly speaking, a human dies because he/she wants to do it?

– Yes, there is a correlation between these factors. Thus, a Nobel laureate, in average, lives 15 years longer than other people. Due to specific mentality, a conductor lives 10 years longer than their bandsmen. Or, for example, explain me why a harp-player lives longer than a pianist?

– In other words, you assume that despite your drug, a failure may occur at any stage, and a body will tend to die anyway, don’t you?

– This is a primary hazard because we study only one of existing natural ways to death. Nevertheless, even if we manage to solve one issue, it is likely to result in longer healthy life.

– So, you don’t hesitate to interfere in human nature that may be of divine character, do you?

– As I’m an agnostic, I don’t know whether the God exists or not. The issue seems to be unknowable.

– Have you dealt with something scientifically unexplained in a human body?

 – In these terms, I have not dealt with things similar to black holes where speed of light is not the fastest thing anymore. There were no any black holes detected in a human body.

– Then, is immortality possible?

 – I don’t know. This is the question I can’t answer. Immortality will be possible when a human being crushed by a concrete slab can be reconstituted. Besides, there is such a natural method. In stress conditions a jellyfish acts under a ”Mummy, get me back in your tummy” principle. Namely, each cell transforms into a larval cell, and a jellyfish rolls itself up into a ball of single cells (i.e., a polyp) waiting for better conditions. Turning back in its personal development, it does not try to adapt to these unfavorable conditions. However, a human is not a jellyfish.