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Scientists say they're one step closer to developing a pill that slows the effects of aging. They got their inspiration from an anti-aging substance found in red wine. Now they've found compounds that work in the same way but much more powerfully.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON: Sales of red wine took a big jump last year after researchers at Harvard published a study on something called resveratrol. The study showed that large doses of resveratrol helped obese mice live as long as regular mice. The substance also let the mice run longer on a treadmill and it seemed to prevent a range of diseases associated with aging.

David Sinclair was the lead researcher. He says there is just one little problem with uncorking a bottle of pinot noir to stay young.

Dr. DAVID SINCLAIR (Harvard Medical School): You would need to drink about a thousand bottles of red wine to get the amounts of resveratrol in your body to even have a chance of seeing those benefits.

HAMILTON: Tempting perhaps, but not practical. So Sinclair and a team of researchers have been searching for something like resveratrol but more powerful. They've come up with three contenders and published a study of their effects in this week's issue of the journal Nature. All three were tried in rodents. Sinclair says they triggered the same set of chemical reactions in cells as resveratrol - the same chemical pathway.

Dr. SINCLAIR: The best one in this paper is a thousand times better at activating this anti-aging pathway than resveratrol is, which is great news. It means that we can potentially have a small pill that could ward off or even treat many of the diseases of the Western world.

HAMILTON: Such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and heart disease. These new compounds are the property of Sirtris, a company that Sinclair helped start. And unlike resveratrol, which occurs naturally and is sold as a dietary supplement, they'll need FDA approval.

Dr. SINCLAIR: We're moving away from this molecule in red wine towards real drug discovery, pharmaceutical and rational drug design that most of the drugs we take these days come from.

HAMILTON: And drugs have to be approved to treat a specific disease, so the new study took the most potent new compound and studied its effect on mice and rats with diabetes. They found that it controlled blood sugar as well as a widely used diabetes drug. Sinclair believes the compound also will work against other diseases of aging, including cancer.

Dr. Randall Holcombe isn't so sure. He is the chief of hematology and oncology at UC Irvine. He did an experiment comparing pure resveratrol to a powder made from grapes - the goal was to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Dr. RANDALL HOLCOMBE (University of California, Irvine): We actually found that the grape powder was more effective than pure resveratrol. And that suggested that resveratrol is more active in combination with other compounds such as grapes than it is all by itself.

HAMILTON: Holcombe says that raises the possibility that Sinclair's super resveratrol compounds by themselves won't do much to prevent cancer. Despite the lingering questions, Dr. Stephen Helfand of Brown University says the research based on resveratrol does seem awfully promising.

Dr. STEPHEN HELFAND (Brown University): The surprising thing really is how well this molecule has worked so far.

HAMILTON: Helfand says he has mixed feelings about the research moving away from dietary supplements and toward more traditional drug development. On the plus side, he says, the need for FDA approval ensures that any new products will get rigorous testing.

Dr. HELFAND: I think the public should be pleased in that sense. The correct experiments will be done and the correct scrutiny will be given to these compounds. They will now be scrutinized much more so than they were before.

HAMILTON: Helfand says the downside is that any product to emerge from this research probably won't be cheap. David Sinclair says that so far his company has had no trouble raising lots of money, despite the risk that no drug will ever emerge.

Dr. SINCLAIR: The pay-off is huge. Even diabetes in itself is roughly a $10 billion worldwide market, some say even higher, and that's just one disease.

HAMILTON: Sinclair says the first major studies of resveratrol in people won't be published until next year. Human studies of the newer, more powerful compounds are even further off.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's Your Health on this Thursday morning.

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