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Aging and Lifespan

Isotopes, Get Your Revivifying Isotopes

Here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor – at least, the ground floor of a pitch you probably haven’t heard before. The chemists and biologists in the crowd will be familiar with how isotopic enrichment takes place in biological systems. Bonds between heavier atoms are slightly harder to break, making the rate constants of those reactions a bit slower than otherwise. The deuterium isotope effect (versus plain hydrogen) can be large enough to take advantage of therapeutically, if a key C-H bond involved in metabolic clearance of the drug is replaced by a C-D. That’s as big an isotope effects as  you can get, since deuterium is twice as heavy as hydrogen, but heavier isotopes (whose differences get smaller and smaller) can be partitioned as well. The radio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 can provide a lot of information, such as whether the testosterone in your Tour-de-France-winning body came from your own enzymatic production or from a pill bottle, where it was produced from plant sources. An environment that constantly makes and breaks small-molecule bonds in organic molecules – the inside of a living cell – will tend to gradually shift isotopes around like this, and skewed isotopic ratios in the lighter elements (compared to the local abiotic background) are considered good candidates for detection of extraterrestrial life.

Even surprisingly heavy isotopes can show subtle variations in biological systems. I didn’t realize it, but there have been several reports of varying zinc-64/zinc-66 ratios. It seems that various organs actually do differ in their zinc isotope content, with hair at one end of the scale and blood at the other. Overall, the ratios seen don’t really go much outside the range seen in geological samples – we don’t enrich things that far, because that’s really not much of an atomic weight difference – but the variations do seem to be real, and make some sense according to the various bonding environments of zinc atoms in biomolecules.

So where’s this pitch I was speaking of? Well, a reader sent news that a small Florida company (“Vector Vitale”) seems to have picked up on this research, and is claiming that isotopic ratios vary between younger and older bodily tissues, as well as healthy and diseased samples. That’s certainly possible, although they provide no data, but they’re also (you saw this coming) saying that the key to health is getting your isotopic ratios back in balance. And guess what! They’re preparing to sell you stuff to do just that!

The level of scientific thinking behind all this is illustrated by the company’s statement that “In accordance to modern science, one would never expect any deviation from natural distribution of isotopes for a given chemical element.” That is exactly wrong – in accordance with modern science, you would expect isotopic distributions to constantly vary in subtle ways, and these effects have been studied for many decades in fields as different as biology (as above), geology, astronomy, and more. Of course, these folks go on to say, after touting their own research into zinc isotope distribution, that “Isotope selectivity is obviously common and naturally done. It has never been studied in biological organisms under the current scientific paradigm“, and that’s also completely ridiculous, as ten seconds looking at the biological literature will tell you.

They claim to be developing potassium and zinc preparations enriched in the lighter isotopes, potassium-39 and zinc-64. (The first report I can find of potassium isotope distributions in biological samples, by the way, dates from 1948). I particularly like the part where they say:

From the time of Adam and Eve, we ignore the importance of isotope selectivity in food and medicine, and every single day we consume a poison-antidote mixture to be lucky enough to stay alive for a while.

Human cells are well equipped to distinguish between complex macromolecules; different ions of chemical elements but for some reasons lack mass-spectrometry functions, as it requires strong magnets or centrifuges.

Read up on the kinetic isotope effect, guys; it’s great stuff, taught in college chemistry courses wherever competent instructors are to be found, because it’s been appreciated and studied since the 1930s. But once you do the reading, you will understand why the isotopic differences in heavier elements like potassium and zinc are highly unlikely to have much to do with disease and aging. It would be a Nobel-worthy discovery if they did, but that discovery is unlikely to come from people who act as if isotopes in biology have never even been looked at before. . .


36 comments on “Isotopes, Get Your Revivifying Isotopes”

  1. Me says:

    I for one, prefer my snake oil to consist of lighter isotopes, since it means you’ll get more snake oil molecules to the gram! Bring it on!!

    1. David says:

      You seemed to be completely unaware of the basic principles of homeopathy. It is always better to have less of your drug, because only then it will work for sure and you have less dangerous chemicals in your system. Therefore you obviously want the heavy isotopes! This is just basic pseudoscience…

      (and now my brain hurts)

      1. Anon says:

        Isn’t homeopathy basically any substance with an inverse dose-response curve?

        1. Kyle Jansen says:

          Homeopathy came about when someone looked at the bottled water industry, exclaimed “you got people to pay HOW much for tap water?”, and then took it as a challenge.

          1. Tourniquet says:

            Actually, it came about because a guy was like ‘what happens if I take a shitload of a malaria cure when I don’t have malaria’ and got vaguely similar symptoms.

            From that he concluded ‘obviously all diseases can be cured by something that causes similar symptoms’.

          2. Marc Bousquet says:

            I stopped listening to the idiots involved with homeopathy a long time ago. I had one homeopath tell me that water “remembers” the shape of a molecule placed in it so exceeding Avogardo’s number with serial dilutions was fine. I also never understood how diluting something made it “stronger”. Taking a whole bunch of willow bark, that’s not like curing like, that’s the beginning of salicylate poisoning when you start getting that fever.

    2. Mark Thorson says:

      The real money is in the venom.

  2. Design Monkey says:

    Chugging heavy water in significant, but not yet toxic doses, apparently seems to normalize elevated blood pressure.

    Did not catch as practical therapy, probably due to price of D2O.

    1. milkshaken says:

      you can significantly lower the cost of D2O therapy by drinking your own urine – that too is a miraculous cure, there are books written about it

      1. loupgarous says:

        Former Prime Minister of India Morarji Desai was a big urine man. Eight ounces a day, every day. He told Dan Rather (on 60 Minutes) that it cured his piles.

        They just don’t make politicians like that any more.

        1. milkshaken says:

          I believe it – eventually, his hemorrhoids got disgusted, and left without saying goodbye.

  3. oldnuke says:

    Well, following the old duPont Chem Engineering philosophy, “if a little bit is good, maybe a lot more will be a lot better”, lets replace the deuterium with tritium and see how the patients make out. 🙂

  4. will says:

    Vector Vitale – Buy our product, you’ll turn into a real diaper dandy! It’s awesome baby!

  5. John Wayne says:

    This business plan has one great advantage over many other alternative remedies – it is very unlikely to actually hurt any of the patients. Homeopathy has the same good thing going for it.*

    *All this assumes that you don’t pull a Steve Jobs

    1. Daniel Barkalow says:

      Homeopathy often has the inherent risk that the product will be contaminated with its active ingredient, which is probably present in the manufacturing facility in toxic concentrations. It’s only safe if you’re really not getting what you’re not supposed to be getting.

      1. tangent says:

        I had blithely assumed that homeopathic products were placebos, but I keep hearing about ones that have active concentrations, like atropine teething products recently.

        The FDA has 400 reports consistent with anticholinergic toxicity, and unfortunately 10 deaths, associated with what’s supposed to be a placebo. What I haven’t seen is an actual analytic concentration of alkaloid, or a postmortem toxicology, which would make this a fish-in-barrel case. In 2010 they said “FDA laboratory analysis, however, has found that Hyland’s Teething Tablets contain inconsistent amounts of belladonna” which sounds like they have data… would they not be allowed to release it?

        Because if FDA can measure any goddam atropine at all, the manufacture is a colossal fuckup. If the company buys any belladonna, they’re doing it wrong, because a gram in the freezer will yield them 55 Great Pyramids of Giza mass of product.

        They claim each tablet contains 2 * 10^-16 g of alkaloids, that’s 0.2 femtograms. But they then say that 12 bottles ~= 1700 tablets might cause symptoms in a baby, that’s 340 femtograms = 3 * 10^-10 mg. So either they screwed something up, they thought billions and billions of bottles sounded too ridiculous, or maybe they haven’t changed this text since a previous version with much higher concentration than the current “Belladonna 12X HPUS”.
        “Belladonna 12X HPUS is manufactured from the whole plant, of which a small portion is Belladonna alkaloids (the component sometimes associated with side effects). Each Teething Tablet (which weighs about 65 mg) is composed of 0.0000000000003% Belladonna alkaloids as stated on the label. As calculated, this means that each complete teething tablet contains only approximately 0.0000000000002 mg of Belladonna alkaloids.”
        2010: “FDA laboratory analysis, however, has found that Hyland’s Teething Tablets contain inconsistent amounts of belladonna. In addition, the FDA has received reports of serious adverse events in children taking this product that are consistent with belladonna toxicity.”

    2. Cymantrene says:

      Actually, it seems that some buggers managed to overdose kids with belladona via teething pills. May be 10 kids died due to this shit ;-(

  6. Anon says:

    I’m going to start a molecule-cleaning service. Got dirty molecules? No problem, we buff and polish your atoms until they sparkle. We get right in the clefts between neighbouring hydrogen atoms to flush out any grit and dirt, leaving your molecules fresh and young like you had just been born yesterday.

  7. Hap says:

    Isotopes can help to make your wallet lighter and theirs heavier – it’s like some sort of kinetic isotope effect. It’s amazing!

    1. John Wayne says:

      Nice! I think the rate constant for that reaction is inversely proportional to a ‘skepticism’ component.

      1. Hap says:

        I think skepticism inhibits the radical chain reaction; the mechanism is probably really complicated. I think the bogon is the chain carrying species (I guess you could use another term, but I don’t want to be meaner than I am), but more research is obviously needed. Alas, I know a revenue source….

  8. David Reichert says:

    Great now the cost of Cu-64 (a PET radioisotope) will be going up because the cost of Zn-64 (cyclotron target material) will go up due to increased demand as everyone wants to balance out their isotopic balances….

  9. Paul D. says:

    I’m still waiting for someone to sell health food depleted of 40K and 14C.

  10. dandy diapers says:

    Interesting that there’s no error bars in Vector Vitale’s plots – then again, something tells me that error bars are irrelevant here. Perhaps the Sirtris camp will link the putative differential Zn(2+) isotopes in “young” vs. “old” tissue to increased SIRT1 activity since Zn is a cofactor – could be a great partnership 😉

    1. Lev says:

      What error bars? we measure to .00!

  11. a. nonymaus says:

    Now I’m wondering if there are studies on the comparative efficacy of lithium isotopes in bipolar disorder. It’s as big a difference in mass as you can get outside of the hydrons and I suspect that lithium ion transport across membranes is going to have a significant KIE. As a bonus, the hydrogen bomb industry has done a lot of lithium isotope separation for us.

      1. tangent says:

        Oh, that’s cool.

        On other hand, does this one suggest the 6Li may be less effective as well as less nephrotoxic?

  12. Curt F. says:

    If you’re interested in real science behind this quackery, there’s a great youtube video from a 2013 geochemistry conference where the primary exponent of the analysis goes through the history of this field.

    As an outsider to the field, isotope ratio analysis always seems like a magnificent achievement in analytical chemistry. But it gets pingeonholed as “geochemistry” so people doing really interesting disease-relevant research wind up keynoting at geochemistry conferences.

  13. Isidore says:

    Many years ago I attended a talk by a gentleman whose name escapes me and who was, at the time, director of the Harvard Natural History Museum. The talk was on the uses of high resolution isotope ratio mass spectrometry and among other items he showed how measuring C-12 and C-13 ratios could be used to differentiate between ivory from elephants in areas where they were endangered and areas where they were not and possibly (my memory is fuzzy on this) old and “new” ivory. Pretty interesting stuff.

  14. Lev says:

    I love how their opening graph on the index page (×579.jpg) shows that “natural” abundance adds up to 95%, while “young” and “old” reach to a cool 100%.

  15. loupgarous says:

    When they can show some reasonably low p-values associated with the particular isotope effect they’re flogging and any treatment variable in a properly-run clinical study, it’ll be time to revisit this story.

    Otherwise, this rhymes with “Theranos”.

  16. Paul Brookes says:

    There is another company in this area, and they’re a bit further along the clinical pipeline – Retrotope (

    Their stuff is based on some actually quite reasonable studies (i.e. peer-reviewed in decent journals) showing that replacement of the bis-allylic hydrogen in polyunsaturated fatty acids with deuterium, renders the lipid resistant to free radical mediated oxidation ( The work has certainly been well received in the basic science field, but it remains to be seen whether any of this can be translated to clinical/dietary use in humans.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Oh, the deuterium-switching stuff to slow down metabolic clearance is completely respectable. That’s going to get to the point eventually where the patent examiners will decide that it’s “obvious to one skilled in the art”. But rejuvenating cells by switching back to zinc-64, that’s another thing entirely. . .

  17. oliver says:

    Isotopes and a “pitch”….
    Why hasn’t anyone made a Simpsons reference yet?
    “Isotopes win..”

  18. jj says:

    Wow. The stuff that people push in the faux-chemistry world are almost as wacky as the ones in the high-end audio world.

    I really appreciate how the various points in this particular blog are related simply and directly to physics.

    I won’t point to any specific audio oddity. I really don’t want to send more clicks their way. Well, maybe just one, but you need to look at the reviews!–110-439

    Do turn the gain down on your sarcasm meter before you read the reviews!

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