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Nation/World

March 9, 2013

Scientists shed light on resveratrol

LOS ANGELES — Scientists hoping to mimic the life-extending qualities produced by a chemical found in red wine and dark chocolate say they have solved one of the mysteries about how this compound works to combat the effects of obesity, diabetes, certain cancers and a host of other maladies.

The findings, published in yesterday’s edition of the journal Science, could lay the foundation for a variety of drugs that act like concentrated amounts of resveratrol, the compound that has inspired a $30-million-a-year supplement business. Pharmaceutical giants have invested millions of dollars in the quest to improve on the compound that helps rev up the body’s cellular defenses against disease and aging.

Harvard geneticist David Sinclair and his colleagues have been working for more than a decade to uncover a chemical link between resveratrol and a group of enzymes known as sirtuins, which can trigger proteins that rejuvenate cells. The new results will help achieve a “more rational design” of resveratrol-related drugs, Sinclair said.

“We were working in the dark before,” he said.

Sinclair’s resveratrol-related research has vaulted him to rock-star status by the standards of biochemists. He has sipped wine on “Nightline” and “60 Minutes” and presented his work at industry conferences. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline paid $720 million for Sirtris, the biotech firm he cofounded to commercialize his discoveries. He remains on the company’s scientific advisory board.

But Sinclair’s results touched off an academic imbroglio, some of it fueled by rival pharmaceutical companies.

Scientists on both sides reacted with enthusiasm to the latest resveratrol findings, saying they would lay to rest a key disagreement, even if they won’t dispel skepticism about the possibility for a pharmaceutical fountain of youth.

“We’ve known that it’s true in the test tube,” said Matt Kaeberlein, a University of Washington biogerontologist who has questioned some of Sinclair’s studies. “What this does is suggest the same thing is true in cells.”

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