C60s: the antioxidant causing a health care and longevity revolution
This little-known molecule—one of the world's largest and also one of the most powerful antioxidants—is causing a revolution in health care and longevity. Cate Montana investigates.
The key building block of life—at least life as we know it—is carbon. Up until 1985, it was thought to be present on the planet in only two pure forms, graphite and diamond. Then, in a joint research project, Sir Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex and Richard Smalley and Bob Curl of Rice University made a discovery that led to a Nobel Prize in 1996: a third pure form of carbon which they named buckminsterfullerene.
Occasionally found in chimney soot, meteorites and interstellar nebulae, buckminsterfullerene has the molecular formula C60, with 60 carbon atoms linked together to form a hollow, cage-like structure that resembles the geodesic dome created by American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. Also known as 'buckyballs' for their soccer ball shape (the 60 carbon atoms are arranged in a pattern of alternating hexagons and pentagons, just like a soccer ball), these and other molecules of the 'fullerene' family (such as carbon nanotubes) have proven to have enormous potential in a wide variety of applications from superconductors to lubricants to photovoltaics.
But it is their potential uses in the medical arena that have people sitting up and taking notice. Since their discovery, hundreds of clinical studies have shown the remarkable antioxidant characteristics of C60 fullerenes (all variants of buckminsterfullerene, most commonly referred to as C60) as well as their usefulness as a drug delivery system for a wide variety of pharmaceuticals and cancer therapies.
A radical approach to free radicals
Our bodies constantly produce free radicals—unstable atoms missing an electron—as by-products of normal cellular function. For example, our livers create free radicals as a means to help detoxify the body, and our white blood cells use free radicals to get rid of bacteria, viruses and damaged cells.
For the body to function properly, there needs to be a balance between free radical production and elimination. Unfortunately, because of the internal and external stressors of modern life—emotional, physical and mental stress, environmental pollutants such as smoke and air particulates, heavy metals, industrial solvents, pesticides, radiation and certain drugs, alcohol consumption, processed foods, tobacco and fried foods (especially cooked in a variety of trans fats or trans-unsaturated fatty acids), food additives and GMOs—free radical creation far outstrips the human body's capacity to get rid of them.
The result is a condition known as oxidative stress, where molecules that contain a reactive oxygen atom (known as 'reactive oxygen species'), reactive nitrogen atom, or other type of free radical overwhelm the body's ability to neutralize them, damaging cell membranes, enzymes and DNA.
Oxidative stress has been implicated in conditions as diverse as asthma, bowel issues, diabetes, cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation, neurological and degenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer.1
"It's a side-effect of life," says Joe Nieusma, PhD, a toxicologist and pharmaceutical assessment consultant in Denver, Colorado. "Everybody makes oxygen radicals every day—and a lot of them. Your body spends a tremendous amount of resources fighting oxidative stress. Over time, your body gets a lot less efficient at fighting oxidative stress, and that's where you see the signs of aging, the gray hair, wrinkles, baggy skin, and loss of muscle mass."
The answer to this kind of damage is, of course, antioxidants—molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules, preventing the formation of free radicals as well as scavenging for them after they've been created and helping to break them down. Vitamin C has long been known as a highly effective antioxidant, as are foods high in vitamin C such as goji berries, blueberries and other brightly colored fruit. And yet, at least according to one manufacturer, C60 fullerenes have many times more antioxidant power than vitamin C.2
C60 has such a high potential as a biological antioxidant that one study referred to it as "the world's most efficient radical scavenger."3
C60 is so effective because of its large, stable structure and high number of so-called 'double bonds' between carbon atoms, which allows it to easily form bonds with reactive oxygen species and other free radical atoms to stabilize them, like a damp cloth picking up dust. For example, up to 34 methyl radicals (organic compounds with oxidizing characteristics) can attach to a single C60 molecule.
Another important feature of C60 fullerenes is that they don't appear to break down over time—they can be reused without ever being consumed. C60 molecules also have the ability to localize within the cell's mitochondria (see page 28) and other places in the cells where the production of free radicals is highest.3
Best of all, it appears that C60 fullerenes are non-toxic to the human body. Experiments on rats dosed with the toxic compound carbon tetrachloride, for example, have shown that not only is C60 not harmful, but C60 molecules actually worked to protect the rats' livers against free-radical damage from the poison.4
"C60 is essentially a sponge that just goes around squelching these reactive oxygen species in the body," says Nieusma. "It gives your body more resources to do what it's designed to do, and that's DNA repair and healing. The less firefighting the body has to do, the more maintenance it can do."
Despite the fact that C60 has been the object of hundreds of clinical studies, despite its remarkable potential health applications, and despite the fact that it is only lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (in the US, C60 is regarded as a food supplement and not a health supplement), C60 has seen surprisingly little commercial development.
Currently there are fewer than 10 manufacturers of C60 in the world. There are several reasons for this. First, it is not a particularly easy product to manufacture in large quantities. Second, there isn't a great deal of technical understanding of how, precisely, C60 does what it does to relieve inflammation and general pain and stiffness in the body.
Bob Gresca, founder of the company Carbon-60, uses an analogy to explain C60's effects, comparing the surface of our bodies' tissues to the surface of a paper business card. To the naked eye, both appear smooth and even, he says. However, if we examine the business card with a microscope, we quickly see huge valleys in the paper that look like canyons and ravines, like a river structure or watershed. Our tissues are the same.
"The carbon collects in the river and starts to fill up the canyons, acting like the carbon fiber mesh that doctors put on the skin of burn victims to regrow skin," says Gresca. Anyone with a microscope can observe it. The carbon just seeks out the bottom of the canyon or tear, and it fills it—laying down a scaffolding of carbon for tissue regeneration. The carbon fiber supports tissue regeneration because carbon is the backbone of life."
Despite the universality of carbon in our bodies, perhaps the third reason C60 has been slow to catch on is that there have been two studies released claiming that internal consumption of C60 could potentially damage DNA molecules or disrupt its structure.15
In answer to that concern, professional toxicologist Neiusma weighs in heavily in support of C60. "These two papers have removed all the complexity of the real-life situation and placed isolated DNA in a test tube with C60, removing the proteins, the histones, the chromosomes, the organelles, the organ systems, and all the interaction of physiologic processes that protect DNA in the natural state.
"As well, these in vitro studies do not address all the good research in animals that has been published and shows no toxicity whatsoever across the whole spectrum of relevant dose ranges. These authors have taken a snapshot out of a movie and are trying to draw conclusions about the movie without having any background or context."
For those already using C60 for health reasons, there is no question in their minds that C60 is of deep and lasting benefit to their lives. "I've seen C60 address chronic inflammatory issues like Crohn's disease, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome," says Dr Josh Beaudry, a chiropractor in Denver, Colorado.
He's also recommended it to patients for chronic inflammatory processes like multiple sclerosis (MS) as he's seen improvement with many of his patients taking it. One of his patients, Donna, a 65-year-old from Greenwood Village, Colorado, had been suffering from muscle aches and cramps, fatigue and stress. When she finally went to see Beaudry, one of the first things he did was recommend that she start taking C60 as an oral food supplement. Within a few weeks her symptoms improved. Now, she says, she no longer gets the muscle aches and cramps she used to have after a workout.
"I have doubled my exercise routine in length and doubled the weights I use," she says. "I have a better ability to handle stress, more energy and higher immunity to illness." When she does experience the occasional sore muscles or muscle spasm, she uses C60 topically and, she says, "The spasms go away in minutes."
Beaudry takes C60 himself and says it definitely boosts his energy. He also says, laughingly, that he knows younger people who take it as a sure-fire cure for hangovers.
C60 can also be used topically. Myers says that early in his use of C60, he had a female patient come in with a severe case of shingles that she'd had for a couple weeks. He gave her some of his own supply and told her to dab it on her shingles and come see him in three days. "She took my bottle and when she came back the shingles were almost half gone."
It may seem odd that something with the nickname "buckyballs" could be so beneficial and restorative for the human body. But then, perhaps not. Astronomer Letizia Stanghellini of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, once commented that it's possible that buckyballs from outer space provided the seeds for all life on Earth. Perhaps C60 isn't so new on the scene after all.