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Posted on Wednesday, December 03 - 2008

" Copyright © New ScientistIn a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks i..."

A sip a day of heavy water could reduce damage to ageing tissue that is caused by oxygen free radicals.

Copyright © New Scientist

In a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks it down. He smiles. It's my turn.I put a spoonful of the liquid in my mouth and swallow. It tastes slightly sweet, which is a surprise. I was expecting it to be exactly like water since that, in fact, is what it is - heavy water to be precise, chemical formula D2O. The D stands for deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with an atomicmass of 2 instead of 1.

Deuterium is what puts the heavy in heavy water. An ice cube made out of it would sink in normal water.My sip of heavy water is the culmination of a long journey trying to get to the bottom of a remarkable claim that Shchepinov first made around 18 months ago. He believes he has discovered an elixir of youth, a way to drink (or more likely eat) your way to a longer life. You may think that makes Shchepinov sound like a snake-oil salesman. I thought so too, but the more I found out about his idea, the more it began to make sense. The story began two years ago, while Shchepinov was working at a biotechology company in Oxford, UK, and using his spare time to read up on the latest ideas about what causes us to age. The most widely accepted idea is the free-radical theory. This holds that our slideinto decrepitude is the result of irreversible damage to the biomolecules that make up our bodies. The main agents of this destruction are oxygen free radicals, aggressive chemical compounds that are an unavoidable by-product of metabolism. The reason oxygen radicals are so dangerous is that they have a voracious appetite for electrons, which they rip out of anything they can lay their hands on - water, proteins, fats, DNA - leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. This damage gradually builds up over a lifetime and eventually leads the body's basic biochemical processes to fail. One of the worst types of damage is something called protein carbonylation, in which an oxygen radical attacks vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds in a protein (see diagram). This has been linked to many of the worst diseases of old age, including Parkinson's,Alzheimer's......

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