Reading a drug against all diseases is the dream for physicians and patients. Such a miracle weapon does not exist. But recently, drug companies are testing a substance that has what it takes to reduce several diseases in one - including incurable ones like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The substance is football-shaped hollow spheres made of carbon, the fullerenes also called buckyballs. Medicine made of carbon, the researchers dared not think about twenty years ago. At that time they discovered artful, colorful molecules in football form of sixty and more carbon atoms in the dirty soot. The scientists christened it the name "Fullerene". Completely insoluble in water, the fullerenes could never become a drug, the researchers believed then.

But just under three years ago, the tide turned surprisingly: American physicians tried to treat mice with the disease ALS with fullerenes. ALS is a serious nerve disease that usually kills two to five years after diagnosis in humans. "But researchers found that the life expectancy of the mice is extended by at least 15 percent, if they are given certain fullerenes, " said Andreas Hirsch, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Erlangen. His research team is in charge of the development of Buckyballs for drugs.

Also, the carbon spheres seem to be very well tolerated. "Only from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight impairments occur, " said Hirsch to the news agency ddp. For common drugs, this threshold is usually much lower.

Now, the US subsidiary of Merck and start-up "C Sixty" in Houston announce that they will shortly be testing the buckyballs in clinical trials. The potential for diseases such as Alzheimer's and stroke, ALS, circulatory disorders and Parkinson's and subsequent complications of diabetes is very promising, says Russ Lebowitz of "C Sixty". For many of these diseases, there is hardly any effective therapy, let alone cure. display

All these illnesses are hoped to be treated with one and the same buckyball. In an unusual property of the substance, physicians see a key to healing: Fullerenes remove dangerous free radicals from the body. They literally suck them up like a sponge. "By far, they are best in that, compared to all known substances, " says Hirsch.

Free radicals destroy the tissue in the body, attack the cell membranes and the genetic material. They accelerate the growth of tumors and are thought to be involved in the development of cancer. In many diseases, free radicals determine how severely ill the patient is. "So after the actual stroke, the body is flooded with free radicals. Only these cause the bad consequences such as paralysis, "says Carlo Thilgen, Fullerenforscher at ETH Zurich. Even in Alzheimer's, they are the culprits who destroy the brain irretrievably.

Despite the outstanding properties of fullerenes, it has long been unclear whether they can ever be useful as a drug. Because pure carbon bucky balls are not absorbed by the body, they are useless. Just recently, Hirsch's team managed to change the material so that it can penetrate into the cells. Merck and "C Sixty" are already testing this substance in animal experiments, as Lebowitz reports. Hirsch emphasizes that his team will continue to develop the chosen buckyball.

It is still uncertain whether football carbon will actually be a miracle weapon against so many diseases. However, the property as radical scavenger is by far the one with the greatest medical potential, judges Thilgen.

Another feature of the fullerenes has rapidly made its rounds in medicine: the buckyballs can prevent the HI virus from reproducing and may therefore also be used in the future as an antidote for AIDS. But this effect is very unspecific and today not as far developed as the radical scavengers. "However, it is conceivable that because of its unspecific effect, fullerene could someday help those Aids patients who are resistant to common drugs, " says Hirsch.

Independently of this, however, the football molecules could also make a career elsewhere: free radicals are constantly present in the environment and, above all, cause aging of the skin. Therefore, "C Sixty" plans to use the football molecules in creams. Instead of vitamin E
Cosmetics could someday contain fullerenes.

Susanne Donner

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