Even crappy science fiction usually shies away from contrived plot devices like the cheap miracle pill that extends your life, prevents disease, makes you smarter, boosts strength and lets you live on glazed donuts, red meat and beer. It’s hard to create a believable future where the world is that nice to us.
So don’t blame me if the latest research on the compound resveratrol, whose effects already include extending lifespan, fighting cancer, resisting infectious disease and mitigating diabetes, sounds a little on the ridiculous side. Eventually the sheer weight of reality and medicine’s often-dashed hopes have to come crashing down. Will it make people sterile? Attract predators? Cause us to look only one way before crossing the street? Maybe, but the fall hasn’t come yet. Instead it gets weirder. In the prestigious research journal Cell editors summarize a new paper as follows:
Now Lagouge et al. find that resveratrol treatment results in improved mitochondrial function, aerobic capacity, and metabolic homeostasis in mice.
This seems like partly a rehash of what we already knew or suspected – resveratrol (RSV) keeps mitochondria, whose degradation people often associate with aging, in a generally healthier state. But notice that last bit. “Metabolic homeostasis” can mean a couple of things, one of which is the connection between what we eat, our blood sugar regulation (e.g. diabetes) and how much fat the body builds up. The article’s abstract says this:
Our data reveal that RSV potently induces mitochondrial activity, through activating PGC-1α, as evidenced by the increase in oxidative type-muscle fibers, enhanced resistance to muscle fatigue, and increased tolerance to cold, all PGC-1α-dependent effects. Importantly, these effects, induced by RSV, rendered the animals resistant to diet-induced obesity and insulin resistance.
In a nutshell, resveratrol lets mice eat the mouse equivalent of a donut diet without getting fat. That ought to go unnoticed; it’s not like diet pills are lucrative business or anything.
Whenever a medically-relevant mouse researcher gives a talk, the first or second question is usually about how confident they are that the same phenomenon happens in people. Lagouge and co-workers clearly saw that coming and wrap the paper with a key finding – in a Finnish population small mutations in the primary resveratrol target, a protein called SirT1, have effects on metabolism that correlate very well with the results that the researchers found by manipulating the protein in mice.
Preliminary doesn’t begin to describe the state of this research. Two or three labs need to repeat the work before science will consider an idea established and human trials aren’t even in the pipeline yet. At this early stage it even feels silly to write about miracle diet pills that prevent cancer and make you live longer. Somebody will no doubt soon discover the major caveat that brings all this back to Earth. And then again, maybe not.
For number crunchers out there, the study used a daily dose of 200-400 mg/kg resveratrol. In a 70 kilogram/150-pound person that translates to 14-28 grams of the stuff per day. If you want resveratrol the natural way you’re out of luck if you don’t like red wine, and at 1.5-3 milligrams per liter you had better like it a lot.