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An Ode to Resveratrol

by Tom McFadden

In November 2006, during my third year of university, I got this email from one of my best friends.

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In our consequent red-wine consuming adventures, rarely could we remember the name of that heavenly substance. Versackatron? Reversterol? Ah yes, resveratrol – the molecule that would nullify junk food and allow us to live forever.

Each time we cracked open a bottle of red wine, we toasted to our health and longevity. If what “they” said were true, then red wine would give us healthier hearts, longer lives, and less cancer. Bottoms up! But as you might be able to tell by the tone of Will’s email, resveratrol (or whatever it’s called) was really just a facetious wanna-be-scientific excuse to consume “very large doses” of wine.

Yet the story of resveratrol is an important one. It highlights complex interactions between money, science, media, and health. The tale is unfinished, and we will continue to follow it on this very blog. In case you’ve missed it, here’s what’s happened so far.

In 1995 Leonard Guarente of MIT discovered that activating a gene in yeast could make the single-celled creatures live longer. One of Guarente’s students, David Sinclair, then went on a quest at Harvard to find out which substances might be able to activate the mammalian version of the gene. And guess who showed up? Resveratrol.

Sinclair was aware of many of the reported health benefits of red wine, and thought resveratrol might provide an explanation. Maybe it could even explain the supposed “
French Paradox” – that the French could eat such fatty foods (think of all the red meat and cheese!) yet have long lives and low levels of heart disease.

Sinclair then did a series of splashy experiments that started a media frenzy, and led to big spikes in
American wine sales. He fed mice a high-fat diet, but gave some a super-mega-dose of a resveratrol-like drug. These lucky mice stayed skinny, lived longer healthier lives, and were as fit as a trained mouse athlete. Typical headlines included “Fountain of Youth in a Wine Rx?” (60 Minutes) or “The red wine weight loss wonder drug that lets you eat junk food” (Daily Mail).

Despite media coverage presenting resveratrol as a miracle pill, there are many reasons to approach this research with caution.

First off, science requires replication. Most of the resveratrol science is conducted by researchers who have an obvious financial incentive to get certain results (Sinclair’s private company Sirtris Pharmacetuiclas was purchased in 2008 by GlaxoSmithKlein for $720 Million). This doesn’t mean they can’t do good science, but it means that replication by unbiased observers is critical. Even the yeast, fly, and worm studies meant to show increased lifespan in response to resveratrol have seen mixed results when other scientists have attempted replication.

Secondly, mice are different than humans. Most drugs that work in rodents don’t provide the same benefits for man. Human clinical trials of resveratrol (and synthetic drugs that mimic its activity) are still unpublished. Data from these trials will be the key to making informed decisions about taking resveratrol.

So what does this mean for wine? Unfortunately, to get the dose of resveratrol given to mice in the 2008 study, you’d need to drink about 20,000
bottles a day. That might be a bit much, even for Will and I. As soon as you get above a glass or two a day, the negative effects of alcohol begin to outweigh the benefits. It’s much more difficult to show the effects of low doses of resveratrol found in a single glass. So while wine most likely does provide some health benefits (keep your eye out for more discussion on the blog) its resveratrol content won’t turn you into Mighty Mouse.

But Will and I don’t let this get us down. In fact, a few years later, we got this email from a compost-loving Boulderite named Schlag.

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Hungry? Maybe if you eat a worm that has taken a mega-doses of resveratrol, you can live forever.
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