A Second Pour of Good News About Substance in Red Wine

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

A component of red wine recently shown to help lab mice live longer also protects animals from obesity and diabetes and boosts their physical endurance, researchers reported yesterday.

The new research helps confirm and extend the possible benefits of the substance, resveratrol, and offers new insight into how it works -- apparently by revving up the metabolism to make muscles burn more energy and work more efficiently. Mice fed large doses could run twice as far as they would normally.

In addition, the scientists for the first time produced evidence linking the biological pathway activated by the substance to human physiology, showing that the same genetic switch resveratrol mimics seems to naturally endow some people with faster metabolisms.

"It's very exciting," said Johan Auwerx, a professor of medicine at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Strasbourg, France, who led the research being published online and in the Dec. 15 issue of the journal Cell. "This compound could have many applications -- treating obesity and diabetes, improving human endurance, helping the frail. There's a lot of potential."

Auwerx and other researchers cautioned much more research is needed to study the compound and similar agents, especially to see if the approach is safe for people. Humans would have to take hundreds of resveratrol pills sold in health food stores or drink hundreds of glasses of wine a day to get equivalent levels of the substance tested on the mice, neither of which would be safe. But the new research adds to the growing enthusiasm about the approach, experts said.

"This is the first example of a drug that can apparently affect the whole aging process, not just this disease or that disease but the mechanisms that allow these diseases to occur," said Felipe Sierra of the National Institute on Aging. Others agreed.

"The idea of giving someone anything to improve their longevity until very recently would have been considered snake oil or crockery," said Stephen L. Helfand of Brown University. "But here we are possibly being able to move out of the laboratory from extending the lives of flies, worms and mice to humans a lot sooner than we thought."

Resveratrol is found in red wine, grapes and other foods, including peanuts. Scientists suspect it may help explain why French people have fewer heart attacks despite their high-fat diets, and why eating a very low-calorie diet can extend the life spans of many species.

Researchers recently demonstrated resveratrol did the same thing for mammals in a study involving laboratory mice. High doses of the compound neutralized the ill effects of a high-fat, high-calorie diet, extending the animals' life spans and preventing adverse effects on their livers and hearts.

In the new research, researchers fed mice even higher dosages -- 10 times as high -- along with a high-fat, high-calorie diet. Resveratrol significantly reduced the animals' chances of becoming obese and of developing early signs of diabetes. The mice appeared to experience no adverse side effects.

Additional experiments on the animals' cells indicate the substance works by increasing the activity of an enzyme known as SIRT1, boosting the number and activity of structures inside cells called mitochondria, the researchers said. Mitochondria are like power plants inside cells, burning fat and providing energy. They tend to get revved up by exercise, and deteriorate with age.

Mice fed resveratrol had more muscle tissue resembling that of a trained athlete, sharply increasing their endurance. They could run twice as far before collapsing as mice that did not receive the substance.

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