Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lost in translation: Why resveratrol supplements are not the same as drinking wine


Resveratrol, the miracle molecule from red wine, has rocketed from relative obscurity to celebrity status in the supplement market. Its multiple anti-aging properties are given credit for this, and I used resveratrol research in my book “Age Gets Better with Wine” to explain why moderate regular consumption of red wine is a healthy thing. Supplement marketers now proclaim that resveratrol pills have “all the benefits of wine without the alcohol” and tout their own special formulas. Yet there remains a lack of large well-controlled clinical studies to back up these claims.

A relatively new field of medical science called translational medicine helps explain the problem. Often called “bench to bedside” research, translational medicine seeks to bridge the gap between laboratory studies and validated clinical treatments. The challenge of translational medicine is enormous, given that more than 90% of treatments (say for example a drug or supplement) fail in human trials after successful runs in animal studies. It’s an astonishing  statistic, but this percentage has actually been increasing despite improvements in methodology. Dr. Richard Klausner, former Director of the National Cancer Institute, summed up the problem: “We have cured cancer in mice for decades—and it simply didn’t work in humans.”

So what does this mean for resveratrol? Despite the thousands of scholarly publications on resveratrol, it is still not clear. If you are a fruit fly, then resveratrol will activate your anti-aging sirtuin genes and you will live longer (and apparently have a more vigorous sex life.) If you are a mouse on a high fat diet, resveratrol is what you want in order to set your metabolism in order. But translating these findings to humans is deceptively difficult. A recent article highlighted some of the problems: Natural compounds such as resveratrol afford no intellectual property that could be leveraged to fund the large clinical trials needed to determine their effectiveness; nutraceutical companies complicate the problem further by developing their own proprietary blends with multiple ingredients; and resveratrol has multiple therapeutic “targets” each with its own dose-response curve, tissue affinity, and metabolism.

Resveratrol research may still pan out however, and some therapeutic applications are well validated, such as in skin care. Evidence is certainly adequate to continue with clinical research on resveratrol on a wide range of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. But a glass of red wine with dinner is still a good thing and likely to remain so.