Entrepreneurs and Scientists Seek to Market Age-Fighting Substance

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Internet entrepreneurs and Harvard scientists have something in common. They both want to market a substance in red wine that appears to extend life, at least in mice. The substance is called resveratrol. Its history involves some unlikely interactions between mainstream scientists and entrepreneurs.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Imagine a pill that keeps you young, improves stamina and lets you eat anything you like. If you saw the headlines earlier this month, you might think that pill is already here. And it is if you're a mouse.

Mice have benefited from taking something called resveratrol. Tiny amounts can be found in red wine, and some dietary supplements have a lot more. After the recent publicity, lots of people rushed to buy supplements from health food stores and on the Internet.

But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, hope may be running ahead of science here.

JON HAMILTON: All the fuss began when scientists at Harvard published a paper in a top scientific journal, “Nature.” The researchers gave large doses of resveratrol to obese mice who went on to have lives that were as long and active as their slender relatives. Bill Sardi says he expected this study to make headlines around the world. He's the author of a book about resveratrol.

Mr. BILL SARDI (Health Journalist): There are so many people hoping this is real this time, that this is humanity's chance at health like we had never dreamt it.

HAMILTON: Sardi also has a company that sells resveratrol in a dietary supplement called Longevinex. He says all the publicity has been very good for business.

Mr. SARDI: We sold as much in just one week as we had in six months. And I believe resveratrol as a raw material in the United States is nonexistent at the moment. I believe we've wiped out every supply including what they have in China.

HAMILTON: And that's just one example of the frenzy over resveratrol. The wine industry is rejoicing and lots of people are talking about it - bodybuilders, cancer survivors, diabetics, people who've had heart attacks and all of us who just don't want to get old.

The man at the center of this frenzy is Harvard scientist David Sinclair. He says some people may not understand exactly what his study found.

Professor DAVID SINCLAIR (Pathology, Harvard Medical School): What it ended up being in many media account was that you can drink a lot of red wine and reverse the effects of eating coconut crème pie.

HAMILTON: Actually, there's only a tiny amount of resveratrol in red wine. Scientists usually get it from another source, giant knotweed. And the benefits here were from mice. Still, Sinclair is very excited about resveratrol for people. He's even acknowledged taking the supplement himself.

Prof. SINCLAIR: Yes, I mentioned once or twice to reporters that I take it in total honesty, and then that became essentially worldwide news for a week.

KESTENBAUM: That was great for supplement makers. They started quoting him on their Web sites. Sinclair says he doesn't regret his remarks, but he does want to clarify something.

Prof. SINCLAIR: The reason that I started taking this supplement was a personal decision. But just because I do doesn't mean that I advocate that other people do this themselves.

HAMILTON: Even so, the idea that a top resveratrol scientist has been taking the substance is good enough for many consumers. One of the them is Gerry Gawne. He is a cancer survivor who runs a non-commercial Web site called ResveratrolNews.com.

Mr. GERRY GAWNE (Editor, Resveratrolnews.com): You take a laboratory-proved resveratrol pill - it costs about a dollar - and so I'm betting five dollars a day on having an extended and healthy old age. I like that bet.

HAMILTON: Gawne knows that even five pills a day provides only a fraction of the dose the mice got. He thinks it's still enough to make a difference.

David Sinclair says he has no ties to any supplement maker, but he is hoping to market some form of resveratrol. Sinclair helped start a company called Sirtris that wants to sell it as a prescription drug. Even before the latest publicity, Sirtris had raised more than $80 million from investors.

Any prescription drug containing resveratrol is years away. Scientists will have to show that resveratrol works in people and that it's safe. In the meantime, consumers must decide whether to take their chances with supplements.

Gawne, who runs the ResveratrolNews Web site, says that's tough, partly because there's no way to know how much resveratrol a supplement contains.

Mr. GAWNE: My fear is that most of the resveratrol that's on offer in the market right now is as useless as chalk dust.

HAMILTON: Another person who's concerned is Dr. Tod Cooperman. He runs a Web site called ConsumerLab.com that tests dietary supplements to see what's in them. Cooperman says that because there's been such a furor about resveratrol he'll spend the next few months testing supplements that say they contain it. That will help consumers know how much resveratrol they're getting. But Cooperman says consumers should still think twice about taking something that hasn't been tested in people.

Dr. TOD COOPERMAN (President, ConsumerLab.com): Do we know what the right dosage is? No. Do we know what the side effects are? No. Do we know if there are potential contaminants out there or long-term side effects? No. Yet there's always that small chance that it may be beneficial, but it just seems so remote right now that personally I would wait.

HAMILTON: For his part, David Sinclair is glad his work is getting so much attention. But he's worried that a raft of unsubstantiated claims about resveratrol could lead people to dismiss legitimate research.

Prof. SINCLAIR: The message still does get lost with people's preconception that if you're going after aging you must be some sort of pseudoscience or selling snake oil. But I think that as people start to see the science and read the literature in a detailed way, they'll realize that this is really cutting-edge technology.

HAMILTON: Sinclair says it's easy to confuse hope and hype when you're talking about a pill to extend youth. And as a scientist, he says, he has dreams like everyone else.

Prof. SINCLAIR: If they come true, then I think it will be a wonderful time. But all research is risky and most discoveries turn out to be not as exciting as you think they are. So let's see how this goes. I think that it's a time for optimism, but also some caution. And just realize that these are still very early days.

HAMILTON: Several studies of resveratrol in humans are underway. They should offer clues about whether it's as good for people as it is for mice.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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