No Sir thing with wine-derived drugs

Pharmaceutical giant Glaxo made headlines two years ago with their purchase of biomedical startup Sirtris for $720 million, following reports that Sirtris was making progress with resveratrol-based compounds that might extend lifespan. But doubts are now being cast on the question of whether wine-derived molecules even work for anti-aging the way that scientists at Sirtris believe. It’s an important story for consumers as well as investors, given that use of resveratrol supplements continues to rise. (Consumer Lab reports that resveratrol use by consumers surged some 66% last year.)

If you have been following the wine and health story, you know why resveratrol is such an exciting compound. It has impressive anti-cancer properties (in lab studies), fights heart disease (again, not clinically proven), diabetes (if you happen to be a lab rat), and the list goes on. What is really interesting is that it appears to activate enzymes called sirtuins (the corresponding genes are called Sir1-7), which trigger a metabolic change that prolongs the lifespan of laboratory organisms such as yeast and fruitflies. If the effect could be replicated in humans, we could perhaps expect to live well into our 150’s.

The problem is, it might not work that way, either in humans or primitive organisms. Concerns about an artifact of the testing method that leads to false-positive results have been expressed by skeptics such as Matt Kaeberlein here in Seattle (at the University of Washington), and now studies from Glaxo’s rivals cast further doubts. Amgen published a report this past fall provocatively titled “Resveratrol is not a direct activator of SIRT1 activity.” Pfizer has weighed in with a similar sentiment. So given the lack of clinical data supporting the use of resveratrol supplements, it is fair to say that a lot of work remains to be done.

It’s pretty complicated stuff, but there are some simple truths in which we can take comfort. One is that wine drinkers outlive teetotalers, enjoy better health, and have a higher quality of life according to published studies. The sentiment was aptly expressed in one of the iconic wine & health studies published in 1979. In considering the possibility that wine’s benefits might be attributable to some as-yet unidentified compound, the authors observed that “The medicine is already in a highly palatable form.” (St. Leger, Cochrane, and Moore)

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