Wine element aids fat fight

Ingredient in reds found to counteract laboratory mice's dangerously rich diet

November 02, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter

A glass of red wine might be good for your heart and ease the tension you feel after a hard day. Now researchers say that red wine - or a compound in it - might help you live longer even if you indulge in rich meals.

The compound reversed the ill effects of a high-fat diet in mice and prolonged their lives, say researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute of Aging.

Mice given heavy doses of resveratrol (res-VAIR-a-trol) had healthier heart and liver tissues and less likelihood of developing cancer and Type 2 diabetes, even though they were raised on high-fat diets. They also were as active as their leaner counterparts, performing about as well on exercise equipment.

Resveratrol reduced the overall risk of death by 31 percent among obese mice, according to the study, published yesterday in the online edition of Nature.

Scientists have been probing the effects of resveratrol since the late 1990s, when it was identified as a compound in red wine that could reduce the risk of heart disease. The phenomenon is known as the French paradox: Studies showed French drinkers of red wine had lower cardiac risks despite their rich diets.

But before you uncork that bottle of red, consider this: The mice were given doses equivalent to an adult drinking about 100 bottles of wine each day, the researchers say.

"There is still a long way to go to see if works in humans," said David Sinclair, senior co-investigator. "But we're optimistic."

Sinclair and other Harvard researchers found in a 2003 study that a colony of yeast given resveratrol lived 60 percent longer. Similar benefits have been found in roundworms, fruit flies and fish. The antioxidant also has been found to protect against Huntington's disease in mice and roundworms.

Researchers not involved in the study say the findings published yesterday could prove to be a major step in the search for medications that reduce the risks of age-related diseases.

"It's pretty exciting work," said Stephen Helfand, a molecular biologist at Brown University who prolonged the lives of fruit flies given resveratrol.

Over the years, researchers have been examining whether such practices as a calorie-restricted diet could prolong life. They have increased the life spans of mice and other animals by restricting calories by up to 40 percent. Through that research, scientists identified enzymes linked to extending life spans that experts believe are activated by resveratrol.

Researchers say that Sinclair's work is a step in the right direction - opening a door to the benefits of a spartan diet without the pain of eating less.

"This is a first step for reaching a condition that would give you a longer life," Helfand said.

But he cautioned that the results were limited to the effects of resveratrol on mice with unhealthy diets, and not on healthy eaters.

"The one thing you can say now is that it has the potential for curing the effects of a McDonald's diet, not a healthy diet," Helfand said.

Sinclair is conducting another study to see whether resveratrol has the same effects on mice fed a healthy diet. Results of that study are due to be published next year, he said.

"The results look encouraging and promising, that's all I can say," he said.

Sinclair has a financial stake in the work through a company that he co-founded. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals is conducting human clinical trials that could lead to FDA approval of a patented form of resveratrol to treat Type 2 diabetes.

But Sinclair and his partner at Sirtris say that regardless of their financial stake, the results show the possibilities for prolonging lives.

"I'm not going to win a Nobel Prize for this, but I think someone is," said Dr. Christoph Westphal, chief executive officer of the Cambridge, Mass., firm.

Extracts with resveratrol are available in over-the-counter health supplements. But Westphal said they don't provide the same health benefits as the patented medication because the quantity is so small.

"You may be able to get the therapeutic effect, if you wanted to take hundreds of pills each day," he said.

In the study, the researchers took three groups of mice and fed one a healthy diet, one a diet containing 60 percent fat and another the high-fat diet with doses of resveratrol. The high-fat diet was the equivalent of eating at McDonald's three times a day, at least one expert said.

The researchers found that in general, resveratrol reduced risk of death by nearly a third, essentially allowing the mice to live about as long as healthy eaters.

The mice given resveratrol also had lower glucose levels, healthier heart and liver tissues and greater insulin sensitivity - conditions that taken together made them less susceptible to such age-related ailments as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

"It shows you not only live longer, but you live healthier while you're doing it," Helfand said.

Sinclair hopes to have a medication available in about five years. He sees a need for it, given the nation's obesity epidemic:

"We're not endorsing people getting away with not exercising or eating unhealthy diets. But we know that preaching to people about a healthy diet is not something that's working."

Sun reporter Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

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