Urey’s mentor Gilbert N. Lewis, professor of chemistry at Berkeley, was the ﬁrst to create pure heavy water via electrolysis in 1933 shortly after Urey proved its existence. And subsequently he was the ﬁrst to observe that this heavy water when frozen would sink instead of ﬂoat like normal water ice. He also observed it strongly delayed the reproduction of microbes and retarded the growth of seeds.
A new era of research, focusing on this newly discovered hydrogen isotope, deuterium, was ushered in. Soon after professor Lewis’ heavy water observations, Oscar W. Richards, a researcher at the Osborn Zoological Lab at Yale University showed that the splitting process of sugar with yeast is nine times slower in heavy water. What looked and felt like normal water was something altogether different.
From 1934 to 1939 H.G. Barbour and his colleagues from the Pharmacology Department at Yale initiated the ﬁrst systematic study on the effects of heavy water on mice. Between 1933 and 1939 there were 216 published English language studies on the biological effects of deuterium, all arriving at the same observation: heavy water was an impairment on life. The experiments replacing normal water with just 30% heavy water caused bacteria, plants, and animals to die in a matter of days. More research needed to be done, but as World War II approached, heavy water became increasingly difﬁcult to obtain for further study because of the great demand in the military sector. Biological research on deuterium was stiﬂed and gradually faded away until the 1950’s.
It was about the same time Francis H.C. Crick and James D. Watson announced the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953, that a gerontology and genetics graduate student named Gennady D. Berdyshev at the University of Tomsk in Siberia (Soviet Union) was urged on by a colleague, Boris N. Rodimov, a biophysicist, to investigate a very peculiar anomaly concerning lifespans of the Soviet population. While the average percentage of centenarians in all of the Soviet Union was less than 10 per one million, in certain areas of Siberia there was a striking number of centenarians – 324 per one million people, and furthermore, most of the population of Altai and Yakutia enjoyed great health and vitality well into their old age. Knowing that these regions were uniquely provided with pristine glacial-melt water from high altitudes, he was motivated to investigate this factor as a possible common denominator of the longevity of their inhabitants. Scientists focused on the possibility that some unique and unrecognized water characteristic might be involved – a mystery hidden perhaps in ancient glacial ice.
The ﬁrst experiments consisted of mining permafrost at a depth of 20 meters and melting water that had lain as ice for 300 million years. In the lab, it was observed that water stimulated cell division and slowed down aging. When the institute could no longer pay for the extraction of ancient ice they evaluated Siberian snow from their own vicinity, and to their surprise it had a similar effect. The theory of deuterium depleted water was beginning to take shape.
The experiments done by V.M. Muhachev at the Tomsk University in 1959 to 1960 convinced his colleagues that even a small dose of deuterium distorted the chemistry of hydrogen bonding and inhibited sub-molecular processes. By 1960 Berdyshev had enough information to conclusively link the longevity of the Yakuts and the Altaians with the consumption of glacial melt water. The researchers from Tomsk discovered that ancient ice, high latitude mountain snow, and glacial runoff were 15-20% depleted in deuterium compared to what became known as the Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW), which is 155.76 ppm at the equator. As a matter of historical record, the findings were first published in an agricultural journal in Omsk in 1961.
No sooner had Berdyshev, Rodimov, Muhachev, et., al discovered this rejuvenating water, that a Level 6 nuclear disaster occurred at the Kyshtym nuclear power plant in the southern Ural Mountains, the third largest nuclear disaster in history! Berdyshev and his colleagues provided their newly discovered “miracle melt water” to a number of the victims and they were saved. It wasn’t until after the Soviet Union fell that the Russians declassiﬁed the disaster as well as how deuterium depleted water was used in medical treatment.
In 1966 Rodimov and his Biophysics Department chair I.V. Toroptsev were allowed to publish their work in English for the beneﬁt of researchers and scientists everywhere. With their groundbreaking ﬁndings in Biological Role of Heavy Water in Living Organisms they put Siberia on the map. They became the very ﬁrst scientists to show how water depleted in deuterium had a positive biological effect. In the mouse experiments, they observed the increase of heavy water to 3% caused offspring to have a 20% lower birth weight, 3X smaller adult size than the control group, and the inability to reproduce a third generation. In another experiment, mice consuming glacial melt water had greater sexual activity and grew faster and bigger than the control group. These experiments were repeated in many Soviet institutions with different animals and plants. Considering that deuterium had only been discovered 30 years before, this was a monumental breakthrough. A secret of longevity had just been revealed!
Coincidentally, around the same time, one of the greatest revelations in biology was taking shape by Paul D. Boyer, a molecular biologist with UCLA. He discovered that tiny protein nano-motors with in the mitochondria, sitting at the end of the Electron Transport Chain (ETC) bore the ﬁnal burden for creating ATP. This protein assembly, spinning at 9000 RPM, has the structure and function of a mechanical motor, complete with rotor, stator and magnetic ﬁeld. Boyer christened it “ATP Synthase”. It would be another 40 years, and the turn of the millennium, before deuterium’s effect on ATP Synthase would be uncovered.
By the early 1960’s it was clear that deuterium, although a hydrogen isotope, was something altogether “different” both biochemically and biophysically, being twice the mass of protium due to the addition of a neutron which is absent from normal hydrogen. No other element has such an extreme difference in mass among its isotopes. Nevertheless, the understanding of how deuterium functions at the cellular level was yet to be discovered.
While the Russians were doing their research and making quiet breakthroughs, Americans were also hot to blaze a deuterium trail. It was 1963 when John F. Thomson of the Medical Research division of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois wrote the deﬁnitive 152-page treatise entitled Biological Effects of Deuterium. The work of his colleagues Joseph J. Katz and Henry L. Crespi reinforced the biological implications of deuterium, noting early on in Deuterated Organisms Cultivation and Uses, published in 1966 that deuterium affects the shape of proteins and the replication of DNA. Laboratory mice experiments were conducted in which their normal body water was altered in the percentage (%) of heavy water, yielded the following results:
Experiment #1: Laboratory mice body water was increased in concentration of heavy water to 30%. It proved to be fatal to the mice in a matter of days.
Experiment #2: Laboratory mice body water was depleted in deuterium by 30% (105 ppm), resulting in signiﬁcantly increased lifespans.
Ten years later in 1974, again at Argonne National Labs, British scientist T.R. Grifﬁths, at the 2nd International Conference on Stable Isotopes, proposed the theory that deuterium might be the primary cause of aging. In Possible Roles of Deuterium in the Initiation and Propagation of Aging and Other Biochemical Mechanisms and Processes he states, “Deuterium adversely affects the shape of enzyme molecules which are involved in DNA replication.” He observed that deuterium being more electronegative than hydrogen, twice as heavy, and having different atomic binding properties than normal hydrogen (protium), interfered with DNA replication. When DNA repair enzymes contain deuterium in a position reserved for protium, they have a potential for participating in an error reaction, thereby compromising DNA replication and repair. The following year, in 1975, J.D. Gleason and I. Friedman, replicating the Russian ﬁndings on plant growth, publishing the ﬁrst American study on using deuterium depleted water (DDW) to increase the growth of grains. This small but signiﬁcant publication in NATURE magazine paved the way for a new generation of scientists to try and understand deeper the function of deuterium in the biology of living things.
When the Hunza people of northern Pakistan were investigated for their increased longevity and lack of illness it was determined that the deuterium content of their water, from the glaciers of Mt. Ultar, was about 133 ppm, a deviation of 16% from the 155 ppm global standard. A 16% reduction may not seem signiﬁcant, however, Grifﬁths’ theory further predicted that the adverse biological effect of deuterium is proportional to the square of the concentration. And that is the reason we now know that even a slight depletion of deuterium has a great biological beneﬁt. By the 1990’s pivotal research was being furthered in Romania and Hungary.
W. Bild and colleagues at the Romanian University of Medicine and Pharmacology showed that mice exposed to a sub-lethal dose of 8.5 grays of radiation had a greater survival rate on deuterium depleted water. Mice consuming water that was reduced to 30 ppm of deuterium had a 61% survival rate whereas the control group consuming plain tap water (150 ppm) had a survival rate of only 25%. The test group also maintained normal white blood cell and red blood cell platelet counts as compared to the control group which did not. The same two groups of unfortunate rodents were also infected with pneumonia and the test group showed an intensiﬁcation of immune defenses not seen in the control group. The scientists concluded that mice with lower levels of deuterium in their systems would beneﬁt from less error prone cell division and more effective repair of radiation damaged DNA. It was proof yet again that deuterium depleted water had some unknown and seemingly miraculous biological effect. These animal tests were carried out for the sole purpose of evaluating the effects of deuterium depletion for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
This, along with the work of Hungarian Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Gyrgyi, inspired the work of Gabor Somylai, a doctor and molecular biologist who in the early 90’s undertook the most extensive clinical trials of deuterium depletion yet completed, his data published in 1998, in the paper The Biological Effects of Deuterium Depletion and his 2001 book Defeating Cancer. Somylai’s double-blind clinical trials showed ﬁrst that deuterium depleted water was free of any side effects and second, the survivability of his test group was signiﬁcantly better than those cancer patients in the control group. He showed that consuming deuterium depleted water was an excellent complementary adjuvant to conventional radiation and chemotherapy. Between October 1992 and the spring of 1999, Dr. Somylai and his team administered some 350 tons of deuterium depleted water to approximately 1,200 patents generating over 12,000 pages of documented records. Currently, in 2019 Somylai has 2,222 case studies on deuterium depleted water. His groundbreaking work put Hungary on the map as an important center for research on deuterium depletion.