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Red Wine Chemical Lengthens Life

By Nicholas Wade

The New York Times -- Biologists have found a class of chemicals that they hope will make people live longer by activating an ancient survival reflex. One chemical, a natural substance known as resveratrol, is found in red wines, particularly those made in cooler climates like that of New York.

The finding could help explain the so-called French paradox -- the fact that the French consume fatty foods considered threatening to the heart but live as long as anyone else.

Besides the wine connection, the finding has the attraction of stemming from fundamental research in the biology of aging. However, the new chemicals have not yet been tested even in mice, let alone people, and even if they work in humans it will be many years before any drug based on the new findings becomes available.

The possible benefits could be significant. The chemicals are designed to mimic the effect of a low-calorie diet, which is known to lengthen the life span of rodents. Scientists involved in the research say human life span could be extended by 30 percent if people respond to the chemicals the way rats and mice do to low calories. Even someone who started at age 50 to take one of the new chemicals could expect to gain an extra 10 years of life, said Dr. Leonard P. Guarente ’74 of MIT, one of the pioneers of the new research.

The result was announced last week at a scientific conference in Arolla, a small village in the Swiss Alps, by Dr. David A. Sinclair of Harvard Medical School. It was published electronically Sunday in the journal Nature.

Despite the years of testing that will be needed to prove that resveratrol has any effect in people, many of the scientists involved in the research have already started drinking red wine. “One glass of red wine a day is a good recommendation. That’s what I do now,” Sinclair said. Resveratrol, he said, is unstable on exposure to the air and “goes off within a day of popping the cork.”

Dr. Toren Finkel, who is in charge of cardiovascular research at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said: “I would be cautious in sending out the message that one glass of wine a day will make you live 10 years longer. The concentration of resveratrol in different wine differs. As a drug, it is not ready for prime time.” But the concept of a drug that mimics caloric restriction “is a great idea,” he said.