Uncorking the Secret to a Healthy Life

"It's tens of millions of dollars to set up a company like Sirtris, and ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a drug," said Westphal.

Westphal raises those millions by selling investors on the promise of those mice.

"If we're right, this is a game-changer," he said. "There's very few things I've ever seen in my life, and I've looked at a lot of these technologies, that if the technology is right, and the drugs actually deliver on the promise of the science, it's a game-changer."

So, how exactly will red wine do that? The approach starts with a very simple idea: dieting. Serious dieting.

"There is a very simple way to slow down aging in animals. It's called caloric restriction. And this is a diet that was discovered 70 or more years ago by scientists in the United States. And what they found was that if you restrict the amount of calories a rat or a mouse gets throughout its lifespan by about 30 percent, they live dramatically longer -- about 30 to 50 percent longer."

"So these same rats, these control rats that are on a normal diet have cancer and are dying from all sorts of horrible diseases, while the rats on the calorie-restricted diet are running around the cage. They don't have cancer."

Resveratrol -- The Magic Ingredient

Scientists have spent decades trying to figure out why. Sinclair believes he's discovered the answer in a gene that gets switched on when you stop eating.

The gene starts producing an enzyme that puts your cells in defense mode, making the body more able to fight off disease.

"So instead of having to calorie restrict your whole life span, which nobody really wants to do, your life may not be longer but it will certainly feel that way," said Sinclair. "What we hope to do is have a pill that will be able to be taken safely, hopefully for many years, and to give you the same benefit of this diet that we see happen in rats, this remarkable effect against aging and diseases of aging."

The pill would mimic the benefits of the restrictive diet, without having to limit your actual diet.

That brings us back to that bottle of red wine and resveratrol, wine's magic ingredient.

"Think of a Pac-Man controlling things in the cell, and resveratrol binds to the Pac-Man and makes it more active," Sinclair explained. "And tells the cell to be more efficient, ramp up metabolic rate, and overall health of the cell and [is] resistant to diseases of aging."

Sinclair's research shows that's what happens in mice, as well as in yeast. But will it work the same way in humans? That remains to be seen.

"This is very pure resveratrol, which is pure enough to go into human studies," said Westphal, whose team is currently trying to discover how much resveratrol humans need to receive benefits.

The human trials are currently taking place, and they say they expect results around the end of the year. "I think the biology is very strong, and so I'm willing to bet my career that it is very likely to be right," said Sinclair.

Drug's Benefits Just "Hype"

Matt Kaeberlein, who's a former colleague of Sinclair's and a specialist on aging, said Sirtris is taking a risky bet.

"There have been many findings that were at first thought to be extremely important and extremely exciting but didn't live up to the hype," he said. "There are many other cellular targets of resveratrol that could be accounting for some of these beneficial effects, and that hasn't really been explored."

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