Bolstering cells with a dose of heavy fat may be the key to curing degenerative diseases. Mikhail Shchepinov, director of Retrotope, a biotech company based in Los Altos, California, wants eventually to slow down the ageing process. But he is starting with a related problem – treating the inherited movement disorder Friedreich’s ataxia, with which ageing shares a mechanism. They are both caused, in part, by a molecular attack on our cells. Shchepinov’s idea is to counteract this assault by reinforcing our cells’ defences, slowing the progression of this incurable disease. If it works, it should demonstrate that the approach is also suitable for tackling aging.
The damage he wants to address is caused by molecules called oxygen free radicals, made when our cells metabolise. Free radicals have unpaired electrons that desperately try to find a partner by tearing electrons off other molecules. This triggers a chain reaction as the denuded atom then does the same to its neighbour.
This chain reaction is particularly dangerous for the fatty acids that form our cell membranes. "They burn like gunpowder until hundreds of thousands are damaged," says Shchepinov. Proteins and DNA also come off badly. Blocking the reaction should prevent the damage, but Shchepinov has a different idea.
He reckons we can protect our cells from free radicals simply by strengthening the bonds between molecules that make up our cell membranes. This can be done by swapping the hydrogen in the fatty acids for a different form known as deuterium. Because deuterium has an extra neutron, it is heavier than hydrogen and forms stronger bonds.
The idea is that substituting some of the fats we normally eat with modified, stronger fats in pill-form should allow us to build stronger cells. To test the idea, Shchepinov and his colleagues developed heavy versions of an omega-6, polyunsaturated fatty acid. "It’s not a nutrient – it’s a new chemical that is different from the fats you get in your diet," says Retrotope co-founder Robert Molinari, the biochemist who is leading the clinical trial.
Mikhail Shchepinov believes aging is just a collection of diseases. If the fatty acids benefit people with these diseases, they will automatically extend lifespan, he says. "Maybe people will live until they are 180 and start dying of something else," he says. "It’s a complex approach, but I hope our fatty acids will play a role."
This paper describes a theory about mechanisms of aging that is based on free radical chemistry: "Aging and the degenerative diseases associated with it are attributed basically to the deleterious side attacks of free radicals on cell constituents and on the connective tissues. The free radicals probably arise largely through reactions involving molecular oxygen catalyzed in the cell by oxidative enzymes and in the connective tissues by traces of metals such as iron, cobalt, and manganese."
Retrotrope is changing aging as we know it, so that people do not have to suffer the ravages of many degenerative diseases. Retrotope is a pharmaceutical company startup that is leading the advance of a revolutionary new unified theory of aging and degeneration that can result in dramatically new approaches to therapy.