Revisiting A Scientist's Work
New Studies Reinforce Older Ones . . . RNA Therapy May Slow Down Aging
By Jeffrey Laign
The work late Dr. Benjamin S. Frank, which concentrated on the benefits of nucleic acid therapy, has been gaining a new lease on life through the work of today's scientists. The work of the The findings: RNA therapy shows signs of enhancing the immune system, improving transplanted organ viability and even fighting off cancers.
New studies suggest that a controversial researcher may have discovered a way to slow down the aging process with nucleic acid therapy.
It's not a magic bullet, but supplemental ribonucleic acid (RNA) may help boost our immune systems, increase energy levels, neutralize toxins, repair cell damage and improve skin elasticity. Such, at least, was the supposition of the late Benjamin S. Frank, M.D., who championed nucleic acid therapy in his best-selling book, "No-Aging Diet."
Although scientists scoffed when Frank published his book in 1976, subsequent research indicates that nucleotides such as RNA may help to reverse the effects of aging.
"I have a patient in her 80s who's been taking Dr. Frank's RNA formula for nearly 35 years," says Carmen Fusco, a clinical nutritionist in New York who worked with Frank. "This woman looks and feels decades younger than she is."
Fusco's observations appear to be supported by clinical data. One Swedish study, for example, found that supplemental RNA enhances the effects of antioxidants, which our bodies produce to fight free radicals, the highly charged molecules that damage cells as we age.
Other studies, moreover, indicate that RNA may do much more than block the path of Father Time. The supplement may play a role in helping:
It's been only in the past two decades that the possible benefits of nucleic acid therapy have come to light.
"For a long time people simply didn't believe that the body needed nucleotides," says Frederick B. Rudolph, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University in Texas. "Now there is strong evidence to support that they may be helpful in some cases."
Fusco, who helped Frank develop his Hi-Power Nutrient formula of RNA and other nutrients, has been following the researcher's patients for years, and credits the formula with increasing their health and vitality. So strongly does she believe in the scientific formula, she has taken it for 20 years.
A Fundamental Nutrient?
Nucleotides-including purines and pyrimidines-are biological compounds that are essential for nearly all biochemical processes. They are the building blocks of RNA, which helps the body to produce proteins, and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is necessary for growth and cell division. In addition, nucleotides carry out a multitude of other important functions in cellular energetics and metabolism.
Until recently, scientists believed that the body produced all the nucleotides it needed to function properly. They assumed that people who took supplemental nucleotides simply eliminated them as a waste product.
"But Dr. Frank believed that nucleic acids should be considered a fundamental nutrient, like carbohydrates or vitamins, supplied from outside the body," says Fusco.
Frank, who died in 1979, pointed out that there are two ways for the body to obtain nucleic acids. Nutrients obtained from foods are said to follow the "de novo pathway."
For young, healthy people, this method appears to be sufficient for providing the body with enough nucleotides. But as we grow older, the de novo pathway becomes less efficient. At the same time, our demand for nucleic acids increases. Thus, Frank theorized, we must add nucleic acids to our diets by taking supplements through the "salvage pathway."
Frank reached his conclusions after conducting numerous animal studies and performing comprehensive evaluations on his patients.
"He achieved remarkable results in prolonging the life of mice and rats in the laboratories," Fusco says, "and he restored health and vigor to patients with chronic debilitating diseases."
Moreover, Fusco says, many of Frank's patients have followed his diet and supplement regime for years without exhibiting harmful side effects. "Instead," she says, "they demonstrate many benefits, including diminished skin wrinkling, improved circulation and peripheral nerve function."
When Frank went public with his theory, however, he was met with scientific skepticism. After all, scientists maintained, no disease has been attributed to a diet that is deficient in nucleotides.
But, as Rudolph points out, "Most studies have been based on normal healthy individuals."
People Seem to BenefitWhat Rudolph, Fusco and others have set out to do is to determine the necessity of nucleotides in sick people whose immune systems have been seriously challenged. What they have found is that such people seem to benefit from adding nucleotides to their diets.
Nucleotides are present in human breast milk, and their uptake enhances a number of important biological functions. But until now researchers have had only a vague understanding of the role that nucleotides play in a baby's physical development.
"Nutritional requirements are most crucial in the very young, and there has been much recent interest in the role of nucleotides in infant nutrition," say researchers Ian R. Sanderson and Youping He, who have conducted nucleotide studies at Massachusetts General Hospital, Children's Hospital of Boston and Harvard Medical School.
How do nucleotides help babies grow? Rudolph says, "I think there is decent evidence that there is a strong need for nucleotides in infant intestinal development."
Researchers J.D. Carver and L.A. Barness, moreover, have discovered that newborn babies demonstrate enhanced levels of immune function when they are provided with dietary sources of nucleotides.
Adults need nucleotides as well. But can they make enough in their cells, as scientists long have assumed? Or do they need to take supplemental RNA to feel and look better, as Frank believed?
The answer is not really clear. Nucleotide therapy is not for everyone, researchers concede. But people whose immune systems are impaired-by age, illness, chemotherapy or malnutrition, for example-may be helped by diets rich in the supplement.
Doctors know that malnourishment impedes the immune system's ability to fight off disease and infections. It would seem, then, that by feeding people balanced diets, they would get well. But that's not necessarily true, according to new research. What scientists have found is that providing malnourished patients with adequate calories and protein is not enough to return their immune systems to optimal levels. What they need in order to be well again is supplemental RNA.
As any intensive care-unit nurse will tell you, critically ill patients are susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections. Several studies suggest that nucleotide therapy may help to fight off such life-threatening infections.
Depriving animals of nucleotides, for example, causes their immune systems to malfunction, as Anil D. Kulkarni and colleagues discovered. They fed mice a diet supplemented with RNA and compared them with a control group of mice fed a nucleotide-free diet. Then they injected the mice with a strain of powerful bacteria. Half of the mice on the nucleotide-free diet died. The mice that had taken RNA, however, were able to fight off the infection.
Another study, at Harbor General Hospital in Torrance, Calif., found that supplemental RNA benefited cancer patients. Researchers administered weekly doses of RNA to 26 people with cancer. Four patients improved significantly and 13 showed stability or possible improvement.
Armed with such evidence, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in East Hanover, N.J., developed Impact, a formula that combines nucleotides with fish oil and the amino acid arginine.
In a double-blind study at the University of Minnesota, 11 critically ill patients were randomly given Impact and nine were fed a nucleotide-free formula. The patients who received Impact showed significant improvement in immune function and, thus, healed faster.
Impact's benefits again were cited in a study of 85 post-operative gastrointestinal cancer patients. After taking Impact, the patients demonstrated a 70-percent reduction in infectious complications, with a 22-percent reduction in the length of time spent in the hospital.
If you accept that nucleotides bolster the immune system, you're faced with another question: What benefits might be derived from depriving a patient of nucleic acids?
A Nucleotide-Free Diet?
It's a question that interests organ-transplant physicians, whose worst enemy is the immune system. That's because the immune system perceives a transplanted organ as an infectious invader and works to reject the organ. To prevent that from happening, doctors use drugs to suppress transplant recipients' immune systems. What would happen if hospitals fed transplant patients a nucleotide-free diet?
Mice that received transplants accepted their new organs more readily if their diets did not include nucleotides. The same holds true for humans, according to studies at the University of Texas Medical School and Herman Hospital in Houston. Researchers there found that reducing the amount of nucleotides fed to kidney transplant patients induced immunosuppression, allowing them to accept the organs.
Perhaps, scientists theorized, drugs that suppress the immune system may work better in combination with a diet that's deficient in nucleotides.
Although RNA won't prevent us from aging, it could help us to live longer, fuller lives, according to the late English physician Max Oden. Although his study is considered inconclusive, Oden says he found that rats injected weekly with RNA and DNA lived far longer than rats that did not receive the supplements.
As people grow older, their immune systems fail to work as efficiently as they once did. Thus, elderly people have an increased susceptibility to infections such as pneumococcal pneumonia, influenza A and tetanus. Studies show that RNA can help older people to stave off such infections. Also, RNA may help patients suffering from senile memory deficits, according to D. Ewen Cameron of McGill University in Montreal. Other studies suggest that RNA may stimulate synthesis of acetylcholine, the brain's memory neurotransmitter.
Studies by Welsh researchers D.J. Heaf and J.I. Davies have found that even high dietary levels of RNA have no gross toxic effects in rats, although they cause slight disturbances in fat and carbohydrate metabolism under certain circumstances.
But Japanese researchers point out that foods rich in nucleic acids may cause elevated serum uric acid levels, which can lead to gout and some forms of kidney stones.
"Dr. Frank was also concerned about this," says Fusco, "and for that reason he advised a high water intake and medical supervision of patients with existing gout. Interestingly, however, among the thousands of patients following his diet, not one single case of gout has come to our attention. It seems that if you are not susceptible to uric acid problems, the diet and supplements of RNA will not cause the condition."
Fusco adds that she has greater concern for people with exceedingly low uric acid levels. "The metabolite uric acid has antioxidant properties, as well," she says. "A desirable serum level is 3 to 6.5 mg/dl."
To ensure that uric acid levels remain stable, Fusco recommends that people taking RNA cut down on alcoholic beverages and drink six to eight glasses of water daily.
As scientists learn more about "food pharmacology"-one of the hottest trends in medicine, according to some observers-RNA therapy holds intriguing possibilities. A substance that boosts the immune system, as RNA appears to do, may have far-reaching implications for treating AIDS patients and others whose bodies betray them in the face of illness.
Organ transplants, already routine in some cases, may become commonplace as researchers discover new ways of manipulating the body's defense system. And infant mortality rates, which are comparatively high in the United States, could drop significantly if we knew more about how babies develop.
Some Strong Indications
And, of course, there are RNA's anti-aging properties to consider. But despite the promising results of RNA laboratory studies, questions about the supplement remain unanswered. More studies are needed to assess the long-term effects of taking RNA.
As Rudolph says, "There are some strong indications that supplemental RNA may have many benefits for patients. But there is more that we need to know."