Scientists’ latest quest for the fountain of youth

The ageing process is something which inevitably happens to all of us. Yet, the ability to postpone it has become something of a holy grail for scientists. As well as the effects to our skin, prompting a myriad of ‘solutions’ on the market, ageing happens to all other cells inside our bodies. This causes many problems, from fragile bones to heart conditions. Finding a way to slow it down could have serious benefits, and an international team of scientists from Russia and Sweden may have done just that.

The study, published in the journal Aging, originally set out to investigate the role of mitochondria in the ageing process. Cells produce the energy they need to function in their mitochondria, but during the process, toxic molecules called free radicals are produced as waste.

The team wanted to test whether protecting mitochondria from these molecules could slow down ageing in mice. Professor Vladimir Skulachev, from Lomonosov Moscow State University, has developed a novel compound called SkQ1. It is a synthetic antioxidant that targets mitochondria, in theory protecting them from free radicals. The test subjects were genetically modified mice with a mutation causing their mitochondrial DNA to mutate more rapidly than normal, accelerating ageing and leading to early death.

At 100 days old, the mice were given drinking water containing small doses of SkQ1, with a control group receiving pure water. Whilst the control group aged rapidly as expected, from 200 days old it became clear that the group receiving SkQ1 were developing the typical signs of ageing (such as weight loss, osteoporosis and alopecia) much later, with some ageing traits completely absent. According to Professor Skulachev, as well as demonstrating that free radicals produced by mitochondria play a key role in the process of ageing in mammals, the study “opens the way to the treatment of ageing with mitochondrially targeted antioxidants”.

Although  similar effects in humans remains to be seen, this is not the first study to reveal the anti-ageing potential of SkQ1. Another Russian study found it improved wound healing in elderly mice, and has even been shown to reverse some signs of ageing in rats. Often, purported medical breakthroughs seem to lead nowhere, but Skulachev has already begun developing pharmaceuticals based on SkQ1, with eye drops for age-related dry eyes already approved and on the market in Russia and an oral form in early clinical trials. Perhaps the mythical fountain of youth is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Helena Spooner is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Banner image: Seniors exercising, Rawpixel.com

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