Dr. Joe McCord's latest research may unravel the mystery of aging. And if he succeeds, the answer could come in the form of a little yellow pill called Protandim.
The University of Colorado at Denver biochemistry professor has conducted decades of experiments into a special class of enzymes in the cell that some hope have the potential of extending lives and possibly preventing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Much of his work has centered on oxidative stress -- which increases with age. TBARS, which are a measure of oxidative stress, can also be a rough indicator of a person's actual age.
But, McCord has found that the ingredients in Protandim lowered the test subject's level of oxidative stress.
"They all are reduced to the level of oxidative stress that one would expect, frankly, in a newborn. Or a very young child,' he said.
To be sure, there have been other supposed "miracle" drugs and treatments that never delivered on their promise to delay or even stop human aging. But McCord, research director in the company that makes Protandim, believes this pill might be different.
To understand how Protandim works, you have to first understand how aging occurs.
Aging is "a slow progression of oxidative stress," McCord said. Much of oxidative stress comes from the basic function of eating.
As cells burn food, they also release toxic chemicals known as "free radicals" which cause cell damage and consequently -- oxidative stress.
The body fights back by making two anti-oxidant enzymes -- Catalase and SOD. But as people get older, those enzymes can get overwhelmed.
For a long time, scientists thought that anti-oxidant vitamins like C and E could lower oxidation, but many experts now believe they aren't effective.
Protandim, McCord said, is much more powerful. Tests on both mice and humans have already shown that it revs up the body's manufacture of those enzymes -- thereby reducing the presence of those harmful free radicals.
However, McCord cannot say at this point whether or not Protandim could lead to a longer life. Experiments to see if mice live longer are about to get under way.
Studies have not yet been conducted to determine whether Protandim can prevent disease.
"Right now, all we know is that this preparation decreases oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is not a disease, just like aging is not, in itself, a disease," he said. "But it's something that accompanies, and is attached to, many disease processes."
McCord said Protandim could be "something that will tell us a lot more about how we age, what happens biochemically. And maybe how we can slow it down."
And there is some other promising independent evidence that seems to back him up.
Dr. Douglas Wallace of the University of California at Irvine conducted an experiment and found that mice that have been genetically engineered to produce more catalase, one of the enzymes that Protandim increases, lived about 20 percent longer.
Wallace believes that with better techniques the lifespan for humans can eventually be extended too. "We might be able to increase the lifespan by 50 percent. And of course if that was a human being, then that might be in the order of 130 to 150 years," he said.
Dr. Michael Brownlee, who heads the Center for Research on Diabetic Complications at Albert Einstein Medical College, conducted another experiment involving another enzyme boosted by Protandim called SOD.