11.01.06, 3:27 PM ET
Resveratrol, Keeps Fat Mice Healthy
mice on a high-fat diet got the benefits of being thin
- living healthier, longer lives - without the pain of
dieting when they consumed huge doses of red wine
extract, according to a landmark new study.
It's far too early to know if this
would work in people, scientists said. But several
were excited by the findings, calling it promising and
The study by the Harvard Medical
School and the National Institute on Aging shows that
heavy doses of the red wine ingredient, resveratrol,
lowers the rate of diabetes, liver problems and other
fat-related ill effects in obese mice.
Fat-related deaths dropped 31
percent for obese mice on the supplement, compared to
fat mice that got no treatment. The mice that got the
wine extract also lived longer than expected, the
And astoundingly, the organs of the
treated fat mice looked normal when they shouldn't
have, said study lead author Dr. David Sinclair of
Harvard Medical School. Sinclair said other
preliminary work still under way shows the wine
ingredient has promise in extending the lives of
normal-sized mice, too.
Sinclair has a financial stake in
the research. He is co-founder of a pharmaceutical
firm, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge,
Mass., which is testing to see if the extract can
safely be used to treat people with diabetes.
For years, red wine has been linked
to numerous health benefits. But the new study,
published online in the journal Nature on Thursday,
shows that mammals given ultrahigh doses of
resveratrol can get the good effects of cutting
calories without actually doing it.
"If we're right about this, it
would mean you could have the benefit of restricting
calories without having to feel hungry," Sinclair
said. "It's the Holy Grail of aging research."
Resveratrol, produced when plants
are under stress, is found in the skin of grapes and
in other plants, including peanuts and some berries.
The 55 resveratrol-treated obese
mice were on a high-calorie diet - what one scientist
called a "McDonald's (nyse:
) diet." Not only were they about
as healthy as normal mice, they were also as agile and
active on exercise equipment as their lean cousins,
demonstrating a normal quality of life that was
unexpected for such obese creatures, said study
co-author Rafael de Cabo of the Institute on Aging.
"These fat old mice can perform as
well on this skill test as young lean mice," Sinclair
The only major body measurement
that didn't improve - aside from weight - was
cholesterol, and that didn't seem to matter in the
overall health of the mice, Sinclair said.
The study is so promising that the
aging institute this week is strongly considering a
repeat of the same experiment with rhesus monkeys, a
closer match to humans, said institute director Dr.
Hodes cautions that it's too early
for people to start taking non-regulated resveratrol
supplements because safety issues haven't been
Sirtris Pharmaceuticals is working
on a high-dose resveratrol pill that unlike
unregulated supplements on the market now, would be
used as a drug and require Food and Drug
Administration approval, said company chief executive
officer Dr. Christoph Westphal. And that development
and federal approval is about five years away, he
aiming the research at diseases of aging, which
results are so promising that he rushed the study into
the science journal while the obese mice are still
alive, not waiting several more weeks or months until
they die. That raises some issues, including specific
figures about mortality, but is understandable, said
outside experts. The obese mice still lived past the
median age for mice of their weight.
competitors are praising the study.
"It's a fairly
spectacular result," said University of Wisconsin
medical professor Dr. Richard Weindruch, who
co-founded another biotech company that looks at the
genetics of aging and drugs that could expand life
spans. "People will go to McDonald's and afterwards
they'll do super-sized resveratrol."
fantastic," said Brown University molecular biology
professor Stephen Helfand, who was the first reviewer
for the journal Nature and not part of the team. "This
is a historic landmark contribution."
Helfand said he
won't be taking red wine extract supplements - but he
has put his elderly parents on them. Such supplements
are available at health food stores and on-line, but
not at dose levels equivalent to what the mice in the
experiment got - roughly equal to 100 bottles of wine
a day in humans.
Mice, he said,
are good initial test subjects for human drugs because
their bodies function similarly to humans in many
ways. However, the differences between mouse and man
can prove crucial, he noted.
Sinclair said he
takes resveratrol supplements, but doesn't recommend
it for others.
works by spurring activity and regrowth in cells'
mitochondria, which Sinclair called "the energy
powerhouses of the cell."
such as Weindruch and Hodes, worry that the research
may encourage people to forget about their diets and
wait for a red wine cure-all that may never come. And
some are just plain wary.
"I don't believe
resveratrol is there yet at all," said Sai Krupa Das,
a scientist at Tufts University Friedman School of
Nutrition Science, who is part of a massive study on
the benefits of calorie-restricted diets. "This is not
going to be the magic pill."
"It's not an
excuse to overeat," Sinclair said. But he added that
for mice at least, this shows you can be "fat, happy,
healthy and vigorous."