08 February 2018

Push back aging? Quite real

Vladimir Skulachev talks about drugs that can push back old age

Elena Ponizovkina, "Regional newspaper"

Photo: Sergey Novikov

OG continues to introduce its readers to the winners of the Demidov Prize for 2017. Today our guest again is Academician Vladimir Skulachev (OG published an interview with him in the issue dated 20.04.2017), one of the founders of bioenergetics, a new direction in biochemistry, biophysics and physiology. And Skulachev is known to the general public primarily as the initiator and head of a biomedical project to create medicines to combat age-related pathologies of the body and slow down aging.

– At the beginning of your scientific career, you predicted and discovered intracellular electricity and explained how a bacterial cell moves. And when did you become interested in the problem of aging?

– At the same time. But research on aging processes had no chance of getting support either in the Soviet Union or in other countries, so I focused on other problems. I really managed to predict and detect protein electrical generators in mitochondria, chloroplasts and bacteria. In general, the existence of "animal electricity" was first announced by the founder of modern experimental electrophysiology, Luigi Galvani, who studied electrical phenomena that occur during muscle contraction. But nothing was known about intracellular electricity until recently. It turned out that there is a significant difference in electrical potentials on the mitochondrial membranes – about 200 millivolts. We have shown how the transformation of energy takes place in a living cell: it burns the nutrients entering it, receiving electrical energy, which then, like the energy of sunlight, is converted into a chemical form due to the synthesis of a universal biological currency – ATP, adenosine triphosphate.

In the 1970s, another discovery was made. It was possible to find out how the bacterium moves. It turned out that this happens thanks to a protein electric motor that rotates the flagellum of a bacterial cell on the principle of a mixer. So bacteria – unicellular creatures – invented the electric motor much earlier than humans.

I also came up with the idea that the potential difference on the outer and inner surfaces of the mitochondrial membrane (outside "plus" and inside "minus") it can be used for targeted delivery of useful substances, for example, medicinal substances, to the mitochondria. Subsequently, this idea was realized during the creation of eye drops "Visomitin" – medicines against eye aging.

– We have come to the most interesting thing, the question of how to slow down aging.

– In order to answer it, you first need to understand what the mechanisms of this process are. August Weisman is the one whose doctrine of heredity was announced by followers Lysenko was anti–scientific and reactionary – he claimed that death from old age is an invention of evolution. The ancient protozoa did not age, but then nature "invented" aging in order to accelerate evolution so that natural selection would work more effectively.

The famous English gerontologist Alexander Comfort said: "I will never believe that a horse and a cart age the same way." We also assume that living organisms have an aging program. Recently, molecular biologists from Stanford University, who conducted a comparative analysis of gene expression in young and old nematodes (roundworms), found that their genome provides for the triggering of aging mechanisms. And the program, as programmers say, can be hacked and changed. And thus, if you do not cancel aging, then at least significantly slow it down.

In nature, there are species that do not age, or rather, they age extremely slowly. And to be even more precise – for whom the probability of death does not increase with age. These are the Aleutian sea bass, some species of turtles, the sea urchin of the Red Sea and, of course, many protozoa. But it turned out that there are also "eternally young" among mammals. American Zoologist Rochelle Buffenstein and her colleagues have been studying a naked digger in the laboratory for several decades. It is a small burrowing rodent that lives in the dry savannas and semi-deserts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. The naked digger was named because his skin is practically devoid of wool. But this is not its most curious feature. It turned out that the naked digger is one of the longest–lived rodents, he lives for more than 30 years. And most importantly, his health almost does not deteriorate with age: the cardiovascular system functions normally, bones do not break down, sexual function does not decrease.

A year and a half ago, the Berlin Zoo presented MSU with two herds of diggers, and now they live in a room next to my office. It turned out that the naked digger is very similar to you and me – not externally, of course, but in its physiological parameters. And a person, in principle, can follow the path of a naked digger, pushing aside aging and death.

– How can the centuries-old dream of mankind come true?

– First of all, using cationic antioxidants that can penetrate into the mitochondria and neutralize toxic forms of oxygen that slowly poison the body and cause it to age. We are testing our antioxidant on invertebrates, plants, fungi and various mammals, and in almost all cases we achieve a significant increase in average life expectancy. The work is being carried out within the framework of an interdisciplinary biomedical project that unites about 300 domestic and foreign scientists from dozens of laboratories and universities in our country and abroad on the basis of MSU.

– How much, in your estimation, can human life be extended?

– Alexander Comfort believed that theoretically we are "designed" for 600 years. But today we set the task not only and not so much to increase life expectancy, but to stop the transformation of an elderly person into a helpless, dependent, memory-losing creature. And everyone agrees that it is possible and necessary to strive for this.

I repeat: we do not seek to abolish aging, especially death, but to change the path to death. So that a person leaves this world relatively healthy and capable. This is a task no less ambitious than achieving immortality. And almost as difficult. But, as he said Michelangelo, the trouble is not that you have set a great task, the chances of solving which are negligible, but that you have been solving small tasks all your life that were not worth it.

Dossier "OG" Vladimir Skulachev was born on February 21, 1935 in Moscow.
He graduated from school with a gold medal. To date, the winner of the Demidov Prize in the nomination "Bioenergetics". Vladimir Skulachev is the most cited Russian biologist. A graduate of the Biology and Soil Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University, he has been working at Moscow State University all his life. Since 1991, he has been the head of the Belozersky Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology of Moscow State University, and since 2002 – the Faculty of Bioengineering and Bioinformatics of Moscow State University founded by him. Laureate of the USSR State Prize.

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