Red Wine Compound Activates Gene Needed for Healthy Cells

Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine in Amissville, Virginia. Close

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine in Amissville, Virginia.

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Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine in Amissville, Virginia.

Harvard scientists said they have settled a debate over whether a compound found in red wine activates a gene that keeps cells healthy.

Researchers repeated a 10-year old study using a new method to validate earlier findings that resveratrol turns on a gene that recharges mitochondria, tiny structures that produce fuel for cells. By revving up mitochondria, the agent may protect against aging-related diseases, said David Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor and the study’s senior author.

Sinclair’s earlier research was disputed in studies in 2009 and 2010 saying that resveratrol only activated the gene, a sirtuin called SIRT1, in experiments that used a synthetic fluorescent chemical to track activity. Since these chemicals aren’t found in cells or nature, other studies said the effect would only work in lab tests and not in humans. The new study, published today in the journal Science, got rid of the chemical.

“Controversy is a difficult thing to deal with, and I hope this paper gives some clarity to the field,” Sinclair said in a telephone interview.

The Harvard group set out to see if the effect was an artifact of the synthetic chemicals or was something that occurred naturally as well. They swapped out the fluorescent chemicals for a group of naturally occurring amino acids, including tryptophan, and found resveratrol did activate SIRT1.

Resveratrol Drugs

Sinclair’s earlier work led to the formation of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals which focuses on developing drugs from resveratrol. GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK) acquired the company in 2008 for $720 million. A little more than two years later, Glaxo shelved development of the lead compound from that acquisition, SRT501, when the medicine didn’t appear to work well enough in cancer patients and worsened kidney damage.

Resveratrol is currently being tested in at least two dozen clinical trials to gauge its effects on human health. It’s also packaged as a natural supplement, with $34 million in U.S. sales last year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

Further doubt was cast on resveratrol’s abilities after a prominent researcher and promoter of the compound, Dipak Das, who was the director of the University of Connecticut Health Center’s cardiovascular research center, was found to have fabricated and falsified data in numerous studies.

Overall, not enough evidence currently exists to recommend the compound for the prevention of lifestyle diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, the 2nd International Science Conference on Resveratrol and Health, held in December at the University of Leicester, England, concluded. Still, its effects in animals shouldn’t be dismissed, Ole Vang, chairman of the conference’s scientific committee, said in an e-mail.

“Several markers for various cancers, coronary heart disease as well as diabetes are clearly reduced in experimental animals by resveratrol,” Vang wrote. “So it does have a promising effect in these models, but we can’t translate this promising effect directly to humans.”

More research is needed to test whether patients can benefit from these studies, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at rflinn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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