Biochemists and a range of other scientists devote a great deal of time and resources to understanding and manipulating the processes of oxidation in the body - free radical generation, discovery, design and manufacture of antioxidants, oxidative stress, impact of reactive oxygen species on age-related conditions and physiological changes, and so on. This is to good ultimate end; a couple of new animal studies in recent years have demonstrated extended healthy life spans as a result of careful direction of antioxidants, for example. All too often, however, the scientific story is "works in the test tube, no effect in living animals." No shame in this - any story of progress is that of a series of inventive failures preceding ultimate success.
Since the early 1990s scientists have been putting these compounds through their paces, using double-blind randomised controlled trials - the gold standard for medical intervention studies. Time and again, however, the supplements failed to pass the test. True, they knock the wind out of free radicals in a test tube. But once inside the human body, they seem strangely powerless. Not only are they bad at preventing oxidative damage, they can even make things worse. Many scientists are now concluding that, at best, they are a waste of time and money. At worst they could be harmful.
There are good reasons for this general failure of antioxidants applied as supplements after promising test results on cells; the full complexities of a living being are a far cry from a modest selection of cells in a petri dish. The recent antioxidant research initiatives that do extend life in animals are an entirely more ambitious endeavor than the work of past generations - clever biochemistry, gene therapy, mitochondrial targeting, and a far greater knowledge of the internal workings of the cell.
None of this stops folk within "anti-aging" marketplace making money on antioxidant supplements shown to have no effect in animal studies; nor should it, for that matter. Caveat emptor is a good rule, alongside a free market in reviewing organizations - a much better rule than centralized regulation. Do the small amount of research yourself to find out who is talking nonsense; it's not hard. You do it when you buy a new car, or a new computer, so why not with something you plan on ingesting for the next few decades or so? All industries are just as packed with people who can pass for legitimate, talking the talk, but who are in actual fact full of it and on the take. Learning to tell who is who is part and parcel of living a good life, and is a responsibility you should take especially seriously when it comes to your health.
You'll see a certain dynamic tension at the intersection of the scientific and "anti-aging" communities around antioxidant research - the scientific rejects, those shown to have no effect in animal studies, still make people money on the back of promising, selectively presented early test tube results. It makes it very clear that the "anti-aging" marketplace is a mature delivery system that came into being prior to any actual, real anti-aging medical technology. Lack of a real product has never been any barrier to misapplied human ingenuity and the burning need for answers now, this very instant, however.
A representative article showed up in an Australian daily recently:
The product, gamma glutamyl cysteine (GGC), is a precursor of a so-called master anti-oxidant naturally produced by our bodies.
That compound, glutathione, helps protect us against the damaging effects of free radicals ... As people age, their cells' components become oxidised, and this leads to age-related diseases. What we're hoping to do is re-build glutathione in the cells to a normal, healthy level,
Dr Bridge and his colleague Dr Martin Zarka have invented what they say is a low-cost process for producing this natural compound so it can eventually be added to foods, vitamin pills, toothpaste or cosmetics.
One of the first practical applications, currently being developed, is a skin-repair cream.
Dr Bridge says the next phase of experimentation is to confirm whether GGC can increase the glutathione content of cells grown in laboratory conditions.
As we grow older, our glutathione levels drop, and our ability to detoxify free radicals decreases.
Unfortunately, increasing glutathione in our diet won't solve the problem. Many foods, such as yeast extracts, are rich in glutathione but the glutathione can't directly enter the body's cells where it's needed.
So, yes, same old, same old. On the one hand, the ultimate goal of the science is sensible: identify a way in which our biochemistry changes with age and look for a way to fix it. Not to mention that any future use for glutathione will benefit from the better manufacturing process devised by these researchers. On the other hand ... skin cream based upon tests on cells in the lab - it's not as though we haven't seen that a hundred times before to no good end; tests worth making even with low expectations in the best case, modern magical thinking in the worse cases.
We're a smart species. We can do better than this.