This is the kind of medical news that always leads to people feeling happy and virtuous as they rush to the nearest liquor store. A new study has just revealed that resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, slowed down the genetic aging of middle-aged lab mice, and appeared to keep their hearts particularly young and healthy. Of course, resveratrol is also found in grapes, pomegranates, and other foods, and medical researchers still don't know whether the amount found in a glass of red wine has a clear effect on humans. But the report in the journal Public Library of Science ONE brings enough interesting and promising data to the table to warrant the popping of a few corks. In the study, University of Wisconsin researchers began adding resveratrol to the diets of middle-aged mice, and followed them to the doddering age of 30 months. As animals (and humans) age, many of their genes change in function, or expression. Researchers surveyed many thousands of genes in the test mice, and found that fewer age-related changes had occurred.
They looked at the heart, brain and muscles, and said that the effect of resveratrol was strongest in the heart but did prevent some aging-related changes in the other tissues. Just because mice had these benefits does not mean people also would, although Prolla said, "I think there's a high likelihood that our findings are applicable to humans" [Reuters].
In an added twist, researchers have seen a similar pattern of age-prevention before. They also noticed similarities between the gene expression changes linked to resveratrol and those noticed in mice given low calorie diets, prompting speculation that the chemical may have a similar effect. Many animals who undergo "calorific restriction" live longer, and Dr Tomas Prolla, one of the lead authors, suggested a similar process might be at work.
"There must be a few master biochemical pathways activated in response to caloric restriction, which in turn activate many other pathways - and resveratrol seems to activate some of those master pathways as well" [BBC News].
Predictably, once word of the calorie restriction diet's seemingly miraculous effects got out of the lab and into the streets, humans began experimenting with the famine-like diets themselves, and calorie restriction societies have popped up around the United States. But scientists are beginning to understand the mechanism that underlies the benefits of both calorie-restriction and resveratrol, leading drug companies (also predictably) to look for a way to put those benefits in pill form. On Monday, Sirtris, a startup founded in 2004 to develop drugs with the same effects as resveratrol, completed its sale to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million. Sirtris is seeking to develop drugs that activate protein agents known in people as sirtuins.
..Serious scientists have long derided the idea of life-extending elixirs, but the door has now been opened to drugs that exploit an ancient biological survival mechanism, that of switching the body’s resources from fertility to tissue maintenance. The improved tissue maintenance seems to extend life by cutting down on the degenerative diseases of aging [The New York Times].