Could there really be one pill that keeps you young indefinitely?
This news recently hit the media (link), and the headlines so far have been pretty wild. Catchphrases like "forever young" and "secret to eternal life" will surely spark interest even among the non-immortalist crowd, but how much of it is just hype?
So what is this news all about? The drug in question is the work of professor Vladimir Skulachev, who has dedicated his life to study (and solve) aging. Now he's finally found an antioxidant with anti-aging properties and plans to start selling it in just a few years.
Despite what supplement salesmen will tell you, antioxidants by themselves are not worth much in terms of extending lifespan. In fact, the whole "free radical theory of aging" was put to rest a long time ago. Yes, antioxidants extend the lifespan of simple organisms, but they've repeatedly failed in mice and rats, and there's no evidence that antioxidants would make humans live longer.
There's a pretty simple reason for that, too: normal antioxidants don't reach the mitochondria where most of the free radical damage occurs. No matter how much vitamin C pills you pop or how many acai berry shots you down, you won't be making any difference in the rate of mitochondrial damage.
It appears that Skulachev has synthesized a mitochondrially targeted antioxidant. There's no detailed information in the article, but based on the papers Skulachev's group has published in the past, it looks like the compound in question is SkQ1, an antioxidant attached to a positively charged ion. Experiments have shown that SkQ1 prolongs the lifespan of a variety of species, including mice (link, link).
Clinical trials on humans are underway, and if everything goes smoothly, the drug will be out in a few years. After successful results from animal studies using eye drops, Skulachev tried it on his own cataract. After six months, his cataract was gone.
So what's the catch here? Well, looking at the lifespan data from mice, they're not talking about an increase in maximum lifespan but in median lifespan. The oldest mice receiving the drug did not live longer than the oldest mice in the control group, they just had a squared mortality curve. In other words, the mice that got SkQ1 made it to old age more often than the control mice.
In humans, this would translate to something like being relatively healthy at 90 years old but still dying around 100 years of age. There's no evidence that you could live to be 150 by taking SkQ1. Thus, claiming that "the cure for aging" has been found or that the "fountain of youth" is finally here is just plain wrong.
Aside from the reality check, this is still very good news. Even squaring the curve would be a fantastic thing in humans – if it works in humans. That would mean that a lot of the diseases associated with aging would be postponed significantly and old people would enjoy a better quality of life.
And, for those of us trying to stay as healthy as possible while waiting on true rejuvenation therapies, drugs like this would be warmly welcome.
For more information on aging and longevity, see these posts:
Selegiline and Lifespan Extension
Does Intermittent Fasting Increase Lifespan?
The Curious Case of Human Hibernation
How Do People Feel about Life Extension?