Informed Skepticism Versus Uninformed Skepticism

As rules go, "ignore anyone who says you can alter aging by sticking novel things in your mouth and swallowing" is a good one. The world is full of fools selling false hope to idiots, and most of this nonsense takes the form of pills, potions, and recommendations to gorge only on specific types of food. We are an orally fixed culture when it comes to anti-aging flim-flam. Had I more time, I might speculate on the deep mythological roots of this sort of thing: modern hucksterism as a direct descendant of shamanic magical thinking, drawing on core aspects of the human condition to weave a web of make-believe.

But one doesn't have to go much further than pointing out that some people are greedy and inventive, while others are gullible - or at least not paying as much attention to a given topic as they might. That is sufficient to explain much of what we see around us: if selling a $1 lump of fool's gold for $20, all you really have to do is ensure that you're selling in a place and time where it costs much more than $20 (in time or money) to fully understand the transaction. Biology is fearsomely complex, and few people are prepared to put in the time required to understand whether or not the claims made for a particular purchase or recommendation are nonsense - and the answer is rarely as simple as "yes" or "no."

A while back, I discussed the use of trust networks in this context: if you can't be informed yourself, then find informed people to listen to. But even here it is expensive to discover and use such networks, at least in comparison to the cost of individual products in the "anti-aging" marketplace.

In any case, my thoughts were swung in this direction by a semi-skeptical article on the work of Vladimir Skulachev over at Singularity Hub. Skulachev's group are developing a mitochondrially targeted antioxidant, and are somewhere in the nebulous region where lab work starts to overlap with publicity and early fundraising for commercial development. This is sound science: this is an ingested, engineered compound that slows aging in mice, and appears to have potential therapeutic uses for a range of conditions. Skulachev is far from alone in researching mitochondrially targeted antioxidants - he's just starting in on his fifteen minutes of fame as the Western press notice him for the first time.

However, for a person without any familiarity with the topic and the biochemistry involved, this sounds no different from any of the "anti-aging" nonsense out there. It's a thing you stick in your mouth and swallow, they're calling it an antioxidant - which every fellow on the street understands is a pill you buy from the stack next to the vitamins - and the press gleefully spouts the traditional nonsense with which it greets any new aging research: "Cure for aging!", "Methuselah compound!" and so on.

Back to the Singularity Hub article: the author is intelligent and well read, but not at all familiar with the biology involved. So he is on the fence when it comes a reading of Skulachev from the press. He is pulled one way by the peer-reviewed science and reputable scientists involved even as he is pushed the other by mainstream press idiocy and the superficial similarity to any number of "anti-aging" scams of past years. For example:

Skulachev’s work continues. His anti-oxidant compounds (not sure if this means a new formula or just SKQ1) are being tested in Russia on humans in clinical trials, but as a treatment for glaucoma. I’ve no idea how a mitochondrial penetrating anti-oxidant compound is supposed to cure glaucoma, but there you go. As it would be very hard to test for life extension, such trials are probably only going to confirm safety for the compound. And, of course, whether or not they can cure glaucoma.

Hold on, I just want to take a reality check here. Anti-oxidants that cure glaucoma? That sounds really weird. Most treatments are based on relieving pressure, and some experiments are being done for drugs that affect bloodflow…but antioxidants? These sort of panacea claims don’t lend credence to Skulachev’s work as a whole.

But mitochondrially targeted antioxidants do seem to have broad application: sepsis, wound healing, and so forth. A quick check of PubMed, searching for "mitochondria glaucoma" would show plenty of research on the topic of mitochondrial damage and its role in the pathology of glaucoma. The broad potential use of SkQ1 and other mitochondrial antioxidants only underscores the importance of mitochondria to our biology.

The bottom line at the end of all of this, for those who like bullet points to take away:

  • We are entering an era in which it's going to be harder to tell the difference between good science and anti-aging nonsense, because researchers are soon going to be able to accomplish what the anti-aging hucksters of past years could only claim to do.
  • Therefore, it is good to know more than you presently do about human biochemistry. How else are you going to be able to tell the difference between plausible research and implausible "anti-aging" scams?
  • Personally, I'm not expecting SkQ1 and other mitochondrially targeted antioxidants to greatly extend life span in humans. This is for much the same reasons that other methods of extending mouse life span - such as calorie restriction - that are known to cause changes in mitochondrial metabolism are also not expected to do much for humans. As a general rule, if a way to alter metabolism extends life by 30% in mice, we shouldn't expect it to move human life span by more than a decade in the best case. This, at least, seems to be the present consensus - ever ready to be overturned, as are all consensuses in science.
  • I am expecting SkQ1 and other mitochondrially targeted antioxidants to make a lot of people wealthy and produce a variety of therapies for line items other than aging: the research is far more impressive than anything to come out of calorie restriction mimetics to date, for example, and that is a multi-billion dollar undertaking.
  • Targeting mitochondria with antioxidants is a patch on the underlying problem: it doesn't get rid of the biochemical damage that causes excess oxidant production in the first place. We are better served by research towards mitochondrial repair technologies that can remove that damage, and restore our mitochondria to a youthful state of operation.


One piece of good news here is that the research is being done in Russia, far away from the FDA and obstacles and hoops. This means we'll get results quicker, and the FDA and its nervous nelly bureaucrats won't get the final say on whether this drug is actually released to the world or not.

Posted by: paul at September 21st, 2010 8:56 PM

I wonder whether there's a chance the the overall repair capability would be increased after such a treatment, so - kind of fulfilling the goal you are talking about (to REPAIR, not just to halt) as everything is synergistic in biological systems.
Though the thing that interests me the most is whether Skulachev is right about programmed aging. That alone could change a paradigma big time and the possible approaches, as if it is - I guess it doesn't matter how much "repair" we will do, it may be like trying to pump the water out of a sinking ship.

Posted by: V at September 22nd, 2010 4:19 AM

There is a good side to regulation: when it works properly we don't get shafted, injured or killed by quack medicine.

Posted by: richard at September 22nd, 2010 8:49 AM

This article mentions antioxidants. Since I have found no articles on vitamin C to post a comment I will post it here. There is a scientific argument that taking increased vitamin C can extend life, and when we repair the gene that is damaged in humans that produces vitamin C, then human beings will live to 200 years of age. Scientists have been able to repair a gene in mice that had been purposely damaged to mimic our damaged gene, so we are very close to this repair of our gene.
To save space I will provide link for some information. Here is one about our damaged vitamin C gene:
And here is a link about the research in repairing the gene:
The above link is a must read as it explains why repairing our gene should increase our lifespan to 200 years. I will quote this part: "Animals that produce vitamin C naturally live on average about 8–12 times beyond their age when childhood growth ceases. For comparison, humans live only 2–3.5 times beyond their age of physical maturation (~ age 18 years) and live about 60–75 years. This research suggests a day when humans might live hundreds of disease-free years of life." If you do the math you will see the 200 year figure. That is, we should be living to 8-12 times past our maturing age (18).

Posted by: W Henderson at September 23rd, 2010 6:27 AM

@W Henderson: No, there is no good argument for vitamin C to extend human life.

No ingested antioxidants tested to date have done anything significant in mice with regard to life span, and the reason for that appears to be that they don't get targeted to the mitochondria.

They may even be harmful to life span. e.g.

Or by blocking hormesis mechanisms:

Posted by: Reason at September 23rd, 2010 6:38 AM
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