It’s late and for some inexplicable reason I feel uninspired to write about politics. Not that there is anything going on at the moment, eh. Go figure.
Inexplicable ennui notwithstanding the Washington Post just ran with a piece that will likely get lost in the melee if some enterprising blogger (me) doesn’t catch it first. Some of you remember that a while back I went on about groundbreaking ideas coming from a researcher at Harvard, David Sinclair, who thought that he had a handle on the biochemical mechanism behind the negative effects of growing old. Specifically Sinclair used a biochemical assay of his own design to identify a compound that at least appeared to push back the ill effects of aging and disease. What’s more, for reasons that have to do with yeast and redox chemistry the only natural place that you find this compound, resveratrol, is in a bottle of red wine.
Well before Sinclair’s time we knew that animals fed a starvation diet lived a lot longer and did a better job of resisting disease. Fine as far as it goes, but who wants to live like that? For some reason the North Korea Diet never took off. As is often the case Sinclair made progress by turning the question around. What if you made the body think that you’re starving? He narrowed his question to the DNA repair pathway and identified a shockinly potent activator called resveratrol that interacted with a novel set of DNA binding proteins that he called Sirtuins.
Armed with the right tools reagent Sinclair and competitors first showed that normally-fed animals live longer when you add resveratrol. Eliminating sirtuin proteins also eliminated resveratrol’s influence on longevity, placing the proteins in the same pathway as the drug. Since then resveratrol has turned up in studies on an amazing number of maladies; to get a sense of the scope try this link to Google Scholar and add any given illness to the search terms.
It seems reasonable to trick a body consuming a normal diet to think that it isn’t getting enough food. Sure, most of us wouldn’t fit into our prom outfit anymore but with a gym membership and a healthy dose of free timemost of us can get pretty close. For a body with serious eating and weight problems the answer is not nearly as clear. It seems improbable that one compound acting on one pathway can negate complicated problems including horomone cocktails produced by excess fat tissue, insulin disorders, cardiovascular weakness and more, yet that is exactly what Sinclair’s group claims to have found. From the WaPo article:
The substance, called resveratrol, enabled mice that were fed a high-calorie, high-fat diet to live normal, active lives despite becoming obese — the first time any compound has been shown to do that. Tests found the agent activated a host of genes that protect against aging, essentially neutralizing the adverse effects of the bad diet on the animals’ health and longevity.[…] “This represents a likely major landmark,” said Stephen L. Helfand, who studies the molecular genetics of aging at Brown University. “This really pushes the field forward. It’s quite exciting.”
The research, published online by the journal Nature, helps explain a host of observations that have long intrigued researchers, including why French people tend to get fewer heart attacks even though they have high-fat diets and why severely restricting the amount of calories that animals ingest makes them live longer.
Keep in mind that resveratrol treatment hovers in about the same promising what-if stage as stem cell therapy, waiting on numerous clinical trials and safety studies whose results are not preordained. But if the promise pans out it is almost impossible to overstate the consequences that resveratrol could have on daily life. The preventative aspects alone could force a major realignment in healthcare priorities – if you were an insurance company, wouldn’t you want your clients taking the stuff? If it holds down the claim rate then Resveratrol treatment would easily pay for itself. Resveratrol seems relatively cheap and simple to manufacture even at the current niche-market level of production (judging by the chemical structure, aspirin should be harder to make) so the promise of lifespan and health won’t even stratify that easily along class lines the way much of our current healthcare does.
To footnote this post, I don’t have the numbers on hand but I did have the chance to stop and chat with Dr. Sinclair some years back when he swung through my department on a speaking engagement. He told me that wine doesn’t have quite enough of the chemical to offer a real therapeutic effect without risking other problems – liver damage, for example, or DUI arrests. But, he acknowledged, an occasional glass can’t hurt.