USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Buckyballs Roll into the Pit of Folly: A feature by Festival Nifty Fifty Speaker Dr. Joe Schwarcz Ph.D

The most memorable remaining landmark from Montreal’s fabulous Expo 67 is the giant geodesic dome designed by architect, engineer and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) for the U.S. pavilion. The magnificent 62 meter high dome now houses an environmental museum known as the “Biosphere.” Fuller, who dreamed of energy efficient homes, recycling and global sustainability long before these ideas became fashionable, would be pleased. But the famous inventor, writer and designer surely never dreamed that his name would be immortalized in numerous chemistry journals, lectures and textbooks. “Buckminsterfullerene” is a fascinating substance, important enough to have its discovery recognized with the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded to Drs. Richard Smalley, Harry Kroto and Robert Curl.

It was back in 1985 that the three researchers made a curious discovery when using a special laser to vapourize graphite. The intense heat of the laser caused the substance to decompose into a number of products, one of which corresponded to a species having sixty carbon atoms and nothing else. How sixty carbon atoms, each of which can form four bonds, could be joined into a stable structure was a real puzzle.

While there’s no longer any doubt about the answer to this puzzle, there is controversy about just how the puzzle was solved. Kroto’s and Smalley’s recollection of the brainstorming that took place differ significantly. Kroto claims that it was a memory of his visit to Fuller’s geodesic dome at Expo 67 that triggered the idea of the sixty carbon atoms joined together in the shape of a soccer ball. Smalley, who passed away in 2005, said he arrived at the structure by making paper cutouts of hexagons and pentagons representing carbon atoms at each corner and fitting these together into a spherical shape. There was sufficient disagreement over this to cause a personal falling out which was later resolved. But there was no disagreement about paying homage to Buckminster Fuller by naming the novel substance “buckminsterfullerene,” which the lay press affectionately shortened to “buckyball.”

Almost immediately after its discovery buckyball research got rolling in labs around the world. It turned out that not only could carbon atoms assemble into hollow spheres, they could also join to form ellipsoids and “nanotubes.” At first, significant amounts of these “fullerenes” were hard to come by, but before long chemists had discovered that “buckyballs” occurred naturally in soot and techniques were quickly worked out for mass production. There was no doubt that the soccer ball-shaped molecules were theoretically interesting, but of what practical use were they? There were hints of super strength, superconductivity and even of various medical applications. Oddly, and perhaps appropriately given its name, the first commercial item to incorporate buckyball technology was the “Nanodesu” bowling ball, manufactured in Japan. The fullerene was added to the polyurethane coating of the ball to improve its “controllability.”

While the strength and conductivity of fullerenes hold lots of potential, it is their medical applications that excite researchers. Buckyballs can be armed with anti-tumour antibodies and then assembled into aggregates called “buckysomes” that are packed with anti-cancer drugs. Instead of attacking all cells, these complexes bind only with receptors on tumour cells before releasing their load of therapeutic drugs. Buckyballs also have free radical scavenging activity, anti-viral effects, immune stimulating properties and even hair-growing potential.

In drug therapy beneficial effects are always burdened with the possibility of toxic side effects. In order to explore the potential of long term toxicity of buckyballs, researchers at the University of Paris treated rats with periodic doses of 1.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight until the end of their days. Not only were there no toxic effects observed, the lifespan of the treated rats was almost double that of the controls! The supposition is that this is due to the free radical scavenging activity of buckyballs, based on a separate experiment in which rats were treated with carbon tetrachloride, a chemical known to damage the liver by inducing the formation of free radicals. Impressively, pre-treating the animals with a buckyball solution in olive oil protected the liver against carbon tetrachloride toxicity. Interesting, but the study has not been repeated and its methodology and results have been criticized.

Leave it to the quacks to step in and hijack the science, questionable as it may be, with the promotion of a nonsensical product called “C60 Water for Life.” Just drink a few spoonfuls of this wonder water every day, we are told, and it increases energy levels, reduces the risk of cancer, fights stress, depression and chronic fatigue, protects the liver, provides effective protection against radiation, colds and flu, heals burns and ulcers, provides long term antihistamine and anti-inflammatory effect, prevents buildup of deposits in arteries and even inhibits menopause. Needless to say it reduces the side effects of chemotherapy and shortens the duration of treatments needed for multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. What more can one ask for? Hello! How about a little evidence? The inventive people who have produced the brochure hyping this miracle tell us that the curative properties have been confirmed by the Ministry of Health of the Ukraine although no documentation is provided for that claim.

So what does C60 Water of Life contain? Water. And a vanishingly small amount, 2 parts per billion, of buckminsterfullerene, around which the makers of C60 Water of Life weave their tangled web of deceit. “This product is composed of highly purified water in which natural structures-spherical water clusters-are stabilized with the help of molecular carbon. The penetration of carbon molecules allows the clusters to live for an indefinite period of time. In addition, the spherical carbon molecule is surrounded by ordered layers of water, like water in the human body. Restoration of human health should start with the restoration of internal water of your body.” What we have here are a few smidgens of scientific fact that are inflated and distorted to form a giant glob of scientifically distasteful nonsense that nevertheless sounds palatable to the gullible.

Remember that the study on which the poppycock is based was a rat study, the methodology and results of which have been called into question. And the “active ingredient” was dissolved in olive oil, not suspended in water. Fullerenes are known to be biologically active only in solution, not as a suspension. Furthermore, the rats received about 10,000 times more buckminsterfullerene a day than that present in the recommended dose of Water of Life. Eventually fullerenes may prove to have real medical value, perhaps even in increasing longevity, but as far as “C-60 Water of Life” goes, it deserves a quick death.

Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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Comments

  1. #1 G
    December 31, 2012

    Yee-hawww: Homeopathic Buckminsterfullerene! Take one part questionable science, dilute 1:1-billion with water, and get a Super Placebo with double the amount of quackery in every dose!

    This is the kind of thing that makes life difficult for legitimate researchers. Not due to any inherent problems with the subject matter (e.g. medical properties of fullerenes), but due to social dynamics based on emotionalisms: On one hand, the exaggerated claims of proponents, and on the other hand, the equally irrational condemnation of entire fields of inquiry by pseudo-skeptics with their own agendas. The result is that committees that allocate research money get infected with the “what will other people think?” meme virus, and run timidly for safer ground.

    What’s needed is for working scientists to stand up and make an unequivocal statement blasting the quackery and marginalizing it, and then get on with the tasks at hand. The prospect of closely-targeted cancer treatments is sufficiently intriguing to be worth pursuing, regardless of whatever silly noises may be coming from people who might otherwise be selling “Guru Water” that’s “infused with positive vibrations.”