Biologists have found a class of chemicals that they hope will make people live longer by activating an ancient survival reflex. One of the chemicals, a natural substance known as resveratrol, is found in red wines, particularly those made in cooler climates like that of New York.
The new result was announced last week at a scientific conference in Arolla, a small village in the Swiss alps, by Dr. David A. Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School.
The possible benefits could be significant. The chemicals are designed to mimic the effect of a very low-calorie diet, which is known to lengthen the life span of rodents. Scientists involved in the research say that human life spans could be extended by 30 percent if humans respond to the chemicals in the same way as rats and mice do to low calories. Even someone who started at age 50 to take one of the new chemicals could expect to gain an extra 10 years of life, said Dr. Leonard Guarente of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news - web sites), one of the pioneers of the new research.
The new development has roused the enthusiasm of many biologists who study aging, because caloric restriction, the process supposedly mimicked by the chemicals, is the one intervention known for sure to increase longevity in laboratory animals.
Biologists have therefore been hoping to find some chemical or drug that would mimic caloric restriction in people by tripping the same genetic circuitry as a reduced-calorie diet does and give the gain without the pain.
In an interview from Arolla, Switzerland, where he presented his findings, Dr. Sinclair said, "I've been waiting for this all my life," adding, "I like to be cautious, but even as a scientist, it is looking extremely promising."
So far, Dr. Sinclair and his colleagues have shown that resveratrol prolongs life span only in yeast, a fungus, by 70 percent. But a colleague, Dr. Mark Tatar of Brown University, has shown in a report yet to be published that the compound has similar effects in fruit flies. The National Institute of Aging, which sponsored Dr. Sinclair's research, plans to start a mouse study later in the year.
Despite the years of testing ahead to prove that resveratrol has any effect in people, many of the scientists involved in the research have already started drinking red wine.
"One glass of red wine a day is a good recommendation. That's what I do now," Dr. Sinclair said, adding he hoped the finding would not lead people to drink in excess. "One glass of wine is enough," he said. However, resveratrol is unstable on exposure to the air and "goes off within a day of popping the cork," he said. The concentration of resveratrol varies in different wines.
Resveratrol is produced by plants in response to stress, like a lack of nutrients or contracting a fungal infection. It exists in the skin of both red and white grapes but is found in amounts 10 times higher in red wine because of differences in the manufacturing processes.
Besides resveratrol, another class of chemical found to mimic caloric restriction is that of the flavones, found abundantly in olive oil.
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