Background on Antioxidants

Oxygen Stress and Disease

Oxygen plays a pivotal role in supporting life by enabling energy stored in food to be converted to energy that living organisms can use.  The ability of oxygen to participate in key metabolic processes derives from its highly reactive nature.  This reactivity is necessary for life, but also generates different forms of oxygen that can react harmfully with living organisms.  In the body, a small proportion of the oxygen we consume is converted to superoxide, a free radical species that gives rise to hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical, peroxynitrite and various other oxidants.

Oxygen-derived free radicals can damage DNA, proteins and lipids resulting in inflammation and both acute and delayed cell death.  The body protects itself from the harmful effects of free radicals and other oxidants through multiple antioxidant enzyme systems such as superoxide dismutase (“SOD”).  These natural antioxidants convert the reactive molecules into compounds suitable for normal metabolism.  When too many free radicals are produced for the body’s normal defenses to convert, “oxidative stress” occurs with a cumulative result of reduced cellular function and, ultimately, disease.

Data also suggests that oxygen-derived free radicals are an important factor in the pathogenesis of a large variety of diseases, including neurological disorders such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, and in non-neurological disorders such as cancer radiation therapy damage, emphysema, asthma and diabetes.

Antioxidants as Therapeutics

Because of the role that oxygen-derived free radicals play in disease, scientists are actively exploring the possible role of antioxidants as a treatment for related diseases.  Preclinical and clinical studies involving treatment with SOD, the body’s natural antioxidant enzyme, or more recently, studies involving over-expression of SOD in transgenic animals, have shown promise of therapeutic benefit in a broad range of disease therapies.  Increased SOD function improves outcome in animal models of conditions including stroke, ischemia-reperfusion injury (a temporary cutoff of blood supply to tissue) to various organs, harmful effects of radiation and chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer, and in neurological and pulmonary diseases.  Clinical studies with bovine SOD, under the brand Orgotein, or recombinant human SOD in several conditions including arthritis and protection from limiting side effects of cancer radiation or chemotherapy treatment, have also shown promise of benefit.  The major limitations of enzymatic SOD as a therapeutic are those found with many proteins, most importantly limited cell penetration and allergic reactions.  Allergic reactions led to the withdraw of Orgotein from almost every worldwide market.

Catalytic Antioxidants vs. Antioxidant Scavengers

From a functional perspective, antioxidant therapeutics can be divided into two broad categories, scavengers and catalysts.  Antioxidant scavengers are compounds where one antioxidant molecule combines with one reactive oxygen molecule and both are consumed in the reaction.  There is a one-to-one ratio of the antioxidant and the reactive molecule.  With catalytic antioxidants, in contrast, the antioxidant molecule can repeatedly inactivate reactive oxygen molecules, which could result in multiple reactive oxygen molecules combining with each antioxidant molecule.

Vitamin derivatives that are antioxidants are scavengers.  The SOD enzymes produced by the body are catalytic antioxidants.  Catalytic antioxidants are typically much more potent than antioxidant scavengers, in some instances by a multiple of up to 10,000.

Use of antioxidant scavengers, such as thiols or vitamin derivatives, has shown promise of benefit in preclinical and clinical studies.  Ethyol, a thiol-containing antioxidant, is approved for reducing radiation and chemotherapy toxicity during cancer treatment, and clinical studies have suggested benefit of other antioxidants in kidney and neurodegenerative diseases.  However, large sustained doses of the compounds are required as each antioxidant scavenger molecule is consumed by its reaction with the free radical.  Toxicities and the inefficiency of scavengers have limited the utility of antioxidant scavengers to very specific circumstances.