Antioxidants, found in vitamins like A, C and E, are thought to help delay aging and prevent disease.
The experimental compounds were modeled after the enzymes catalase and superoxide dismutase. They both help fight off free radicals destructive particles that harm cells and lead to wrinkles and the other effects of aging.
"Because enzymes are huge molecules, they can't go through the cell membrane and they provoke an immune response. The body identifies them as foreign molecules and tries to destroy them," said Michel Baudry, the study's lead investigator and a biological sciences professor in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.
Through the company he co-founded, Eukarion Inc., Baudry developed synthetic versions of the two enzymes that were not only smaller but more effective than typical antioxidants because catalytic activity enabled them to fight more than one free radical.
If the two naturally-occurring enzymes are the body's foot soldiers, Baudry's versions simply named EUK-189 and EUK-207 work like a lighter, faster special forces team that can slip inside cells undetected and fight tirelessly.
"When the antioxidant Vitamin E, for example, interacts with a radical, it's a one-shot deal. It can't interact with another radical," Baudry said. "Our molecules are small. They can get through the membranes and interact with more than one molecule of free radicals."
For the study funded by the National Institute on Aging Baudry teamed up with Richard Thompson, the Keck Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences at USC, and a colleague at the University of California, Irvine.
The findings are published in the current print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.