Molecules found in red wine, peanuts and other products of the plant world have for the first time been shown to mimic the life-extending effects of calorie restriction, a finding that could help researchers develop drugs that lengthen life and prevent or treat aging-related diseases.
Researchers said that one of the molecules, a compound known as resveratrol, was shown in a study to extend the life span of yeast cells by up to 80 percent. Resveratrol exists naturally in grapes and red wine.
David Sinclair, an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the study, said he and his fellow researchers hope the molecules will prove to prolong life not just in yeast but in multi-cellular organisms like worms, fruit flies and, perhaps, humans.
Sinclair, whose study appears in the online edition of the journal Nature, said tests on worms and flies were already yielding “encouraging” results.
“I can’t say any more because I will scoop my next two publications,” he said, adding that similar trials were already being planned on mice.
‘Enthusiastic’ over red wine
Sinclair said he has become more “enthusiastic” about the purported health benefits of red wine since his research began, and that experts who have reviewed his findings have had a similar response.
“Not many people know about it yet, but those who do have almost invariably changed their drinking habits, that is, they drink more red wine,” he said.
The molecules that were shown to extend life in yeast belong to a family of compounds known as polyphenols. These include resveratrol, which is already thought to make red wine healthy in moderate amounts.
Sinclair said the latest study may help explain why moderate consumption of red wine has been linked to lower incidence of heart disease and why resveratrol prevents cancer in mice. “We’re connecting many dots with this study,” he said.
Scientists have known for decades that putting organisms on a calorie-restricted diet dramatically reduces the incidence of age-related illnesses such as cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease.
In the 1990s, research showed that single genes can control how fast organisms age. Because of that, scientists have been racing to find ways of manipulating those genes.
Sinclair and his team have been looking for what he calls the Holy Grail of aging research: molecules that activate the enzymes that in turn influence the genes that regulate aging. Now, they say, they have found those molecules.
Sinclair’s team partnered with BIOMOL, a Pennsylvania company, to screen thousands of molecules to see which ones might activate the enzymes.
Not only did they find a group of 18 molecules that fit the bill — resveratrol being just one — but all of them came from plants and were produced in response to harsh environmental conditions like drought.
“We think we know why these plants make these molecules. We think it’s part of their own defense response, and we also believe that animals and fungi that live on the plants can pick up on these clues,” he said.
To illustrate that theory, Sinclair noted that red wines from regions with harsher growing conditions — Spain, Chile, Argentina and Australia — contain more resveratrol than those produced where grapes are not highly stressed or dehydrated.