SYDNEY - An Australian group has raised A$96 million (US$55.9 million) for research into the processes of aging, including the development of a diagnostic kit to assess cellular energy levels.

Anthony Linnane, a fellow of the Royal Society and director of the Centre for Molecular Biology and Medicine, in Melbourne, is leading the team developing the kit, which will check the levels of the Coenzyme Q10 as a measure of cellular energy.

Linnane, who has done extensive research on aging, said last week that aging is a very complex process, and cellular bioenergy is one aspect of that process. So a kit that tests for cellular energy would be a valuable diagnostic tool for deciding just how to treat the various problems and conditions associated with aging.

The center would also research various treatments that might be used in conjunction with the diagnostic kit. The project, as outlined in the documentation produced for investors, involves Linnane's own research on the connection between aging and the number of DNA mutations in the mitochondria of human cells.

Unlike the main genomes, the mitochondria's have no “junk“ DNA. Mitochondria contain 37 genes that are only concerned with the production of energy for the cell. So mutations in the mitochondria will affect the production of cellular energy.

In a paper produced in that documentation, Linnane states that a major discovery by center scientists is that mitochondrial DNA mutations occur in all individuals, and that there is a consequential decrease in the bioenergy capacity of cells, tissues and organs.

At the low incidence level in the young, there are no effects due to the multiple numbers of mitochondria in cells, but over the years the mutations increase to the point of affecting cells and crucial organ functions.

“If and when the bioenergy decrease becomes sufficiently severe, overt disease will result,“ Linnane said. Coenzyme Q10, chemically a benzoquinone, is one of the most important compounds in the complex mitochondrial energy-generation system and, as a relatively simple molecule, can be manipulated to make the whole system produce more energy.

Linnane said scientists at the center have shown that Coenzyme Q10 can be used to reenergize cells - a major discovery that the scientists refer to as “redox therapy.“ They have run trials with Coenzyme Q10, comparing the heart performance of young (six months) and old (35 months) rats, and made the old rats' hearts perform as well as those of young rats, Linnane said.

The project actually started last year but, despite the enormous amount of funding for an Australian biotech project, has not received any publicity.

Another unusual aspect of the project is that the money was raised through public subscription in a way that also minimizes the taxable income of those subscribing - a type of scheme unusual to Australia and a result of the country's high income taxes with low sales taxes.

Unusual projects - from forest plantations to frozen cattle sperm - are regularly financed by such methods, with investors usually left holding unlisted units in the project that guarantee them a share of any future projects generated.

The projects also feature long lead times before producing income, with Budplan Number 4 (as the biotech project is known) expected to produce a diagnostic kit after about two years. The documents state income is expected to flow after three years, and that the Centre for Molecular Biology and Medicine has been subcontracted to do the research. *