Resveratrol: natural supplement or pharmaceutical breakthrough?

Before we delve into this too deeply, keep in mind that the answer might be neither one. Resveratrol, the antioxidant polyphenol from red wine that I dubbed the “miracle molecule” in my book, has had an interesting career. It first came into the spotlight in the early 1990’s following the “French paradox” story on the CBS-TV show “60 Minutes” as a potential explanation for the effect. Research attention ramped up quickly, and there seemed to be no end to the list of beneficial properties on health and longevity. The real breakthrough was the discovery that resveratrol was an activator of an enzyme called sirtuin, responsible for a specific metabolic change associated with dramatically increased longevity. Overnight an obscure field of biochemistry research blossomed into a massive supplement industry.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to the marketplace. The scientist who is credited with the discovery of resveratrol’s sirtuin-activating abilities, Christoph Westphal, parlayed the finding into a biotech company that was quickly picked up by pharma giant Glaxo. A more potent resveratrol derivative, dubbed SRT501, is being developed as a prescription diabetes drug, but the ability or resveratrol to activate sirtuins has been widely questioned and may turn out to be less than impressive. Sirtuin activators unrelated to resveratrol are the focus of development at Glaxo now.

Much of this came to light recently with the revelation that Westphal and a Glaxo director of development were peddling resveratrol online through a nonprofit organization called the Healthy Lifespan Institute. Glaxo was none too pleased.

So where does that leave resveratrol? Despite wide acclaim and marketing hype, evidence is still fairly scant that it brings the same benefits in a pill that moderate wine drinkers enjoy. Specifically, the promise of meaningful lifespan extension through sirtuin activation has not been demonstrated in laboratory animals other than worms and fruitflies. There are questions about its bioavailability – the absorption and metabolism in the body – and purity of the various supplements. Despite the thousands of research papers on resveratrol, much remains to be learned about how it works in the human body. Stay tuned, but for now your best bet is to stick with wine.

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