Lower cholesterol, anti-cancer agents, anti-aging properties and the potential for a longer, healthier life may be in that glass of red wine. Or possibly in a pill one day. But that one day may be further away than you think. Since 2003, when researchers found that the compound resveratrol — a substance produced naturally by plants and in abundance in the skin of grapes and berries — could extend life spans, resveratrol has been touted as a possible future miracle drug for just about everything.
Scientists have found that resveratrol — when tested on mice, roundworms and yeast — has effects on free radicals, cell regeneration and insulin-lowering properties. This gives resveratrol incredible promise toward being an effective agent against some of the top age-related diseases, says Dr. Joseph C. Maroon, a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of “The Longevity Factor: How Resveratrol and Red Wine Activate Genes for a Longer and Healthier Life.”
“Resveratrol is, number one, a potent anti-inflammatory, which may have powerful effects on cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke,” Dr. Maroon says. “It is also an antioxidant and can help slow down the process of aging, maintain DNA repair and have an effect on carbohydrate metabolism, which can help insulin sensitivity in diabetes.”
As with any good-news medical buzz these days, however, profiteers have swooped in to market unregulated supplements before many human studies have been completed and way before any pharmaceutical will be on the market.
Dr. David A. Sinclair, a pathologist at Harvard University, says research shows that resveratrol given to mice seems to mimic the effects of calorie restriction, including healthier arteries, immunity to obesity and less cancer.
“It really is the first molecule to have an effect on aging,” he says. “As for humans, we are closer than we have ever been before.”
What still is unknown is how much resveratrol a human should take to see effects. And how much is too much?
Mice have consumed as much as 400 milligrams of resveratrol per kilogram of body weight without ill effect. However, a human would have to consume 10,000 bottles of red wine to see the same effects, researchers say.
So, clearly, researchers have their work cut out for them in creating such a miracle pill. The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC bought the lab headed by Dr. Sinclair last year for more than $720 million to continue research efforts toward a resveratrol pharmaceutical.
Meanwhile, several online marketers of nutritional supplements — which are unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — have falsely commandeered Dr. Sinclair’s endorsement. Dr. Sinclair says he has no connection with any supplement company and is developing a Web site that “will provide people with information” but not recommend which supplement to take.
Dr. Maroon, who is an adviser to Xenomis LLC, a company that makes supplements, says several hundred supplement companies are laying claim to the properties of resveratrol but the properties of such supplements vary greatly.
Some supplements are produced by extracting the plant compound not from grapes or wine but from an exotic weed — Polygonum cuspidatum, or Japanese knotweed. They are mixing it with a wide variety of other dietary supplements (including the antioxidant acai, which also is a darling of the supplement world), concentrating it, micronizing it and selling it in a pill, capsule, powder or topical cream.
Supplements — sold under such names as Trans-Max, Nitro 250, Vindure and Resveratin, range in price from $15 to $150 a month.
Still, Dr. Maroon thinks further testing and an FDA-approved drug that mimics the properties of resveratrol will be the future.
“GlaxoSmithKline has spent more than $1 billion to take the molecule of resveratrol and to manufacture it as a pharmacological agent,” Dr. Maroon says. “As a naturaceutical, no claims can be made. When this is approved as a pharmaceutical agent, it is going to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Sinclair says the key to an effective resveratrollike pill will be to create a synthetic version of resveratrol that will powerfully involve sirtuins, the class of enzymes that affect cellular aging, resulting in less inflammation, blocked tumor growth and the removal of cellular toxins. He says the goal is not to “cure” aging, but rather to extend healthy living and fend off some of the diseases that we associate with aging.
“There is no way of extending the life span of an unhealthy person,” he says.
So, until supplements are more uniform, studies have been proved and resveratrol has been mimicked in pill form, it is still OK to drink up in moderation. Red wine, berries and dark chocolate contain antioxidants. Red wine has been proved to contain polypheols, which provide health benefits to the blood vessels of the heart. Some studies show that small amounts of red wine can raise good cholesterol, prevent artery damage and reduce formation of blood clots.
Dr. Maroon says drinking wine for a health benefit should be kept to no more than two glasses a day for men, one for women.
• Karen Goldberg Goff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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