The mere act of breathing unleashes into the bloodstream a torrent of reactive molecules called free radicals, which damage cells and are associated with aging. Now, an international team of researchers claims to have discovered a way to avoid the damage. If so, the technique might amount to a fountain of youth--even if only in worms. In the Sept. 1 issue of Science, the group reported extending the life span of the lowly worm Caenorhabditis elegans from three to six weeks simply by giving it a souped-up antioxidant.

The researchers discovered their elixir while combing through the scientific literature. Since 1991, Eukarion Inc., a small biotech company in Bedford, Mass., has been developing synthetic versions of a naturally occurring antioxidant called super oxide dismutase. One of them, EUK-134, proved highly effective in mice at preventing the tissue damage associated with degenerative syndromes like Alzheimer's disease. When Simon Melov, a biologist at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif., saw the data, he wondered if the compounds would also extend life span. He tested his theory by bathing hundreds of worms in different concentrations of the Eukarion compound.

It worked. On average, worms given EUK-134 lived 44% longer than their untreated cousins. Will it work in humans? We are many years from an answer, scientists say.

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