Understanding How Resveratrol Works

Studies have shown the red-wine chemical has health effects; a new study tries to find out why
Feb 15, 2012

A new study by the National Institutes of Health offers additional evidence that the chemical resveratrol, found in grape skins and red wine, may protect against type-2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Lab mice given doses of resveratrol experienced longer, healthier lives than a control group. And, in a potentially important discovery, the team found intriguing new evidence of how resveratrol may improve health, suggesting that it inhibits enzymes that degrade and break down cells.

While there has been intensive study of resveratrol in recent years, there has also been a recent backlash as some question whether there has been too much hype over previous findings. But the latest study, published in the prominent medical journal, Cell, comes from a strong authority in the field, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Led by Dr. Jay Chung, an obesity and aging researcher at the NIH Genetics and Development Biology Center, the NIH team was trying to understand the mechanism by which resveratrol impacts cells.

Chung, who worked with researchers internationally, as well as biochemists and pharmacists at American universities, found that resveratrol acts not just as an anti-inflammatory substance, but also as a genetic manipulator—all to the benefit of the lab rodents—through both direct and indirect chemical pathways.

On the positive side, the researchers found that resveratrol blocks the action of a muscle enzyme called phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4), which causes cell degradation. Resveratrol's ability to inhibit PDE4 is likely responsible for the anti-inflammatory observations in the mice, the study notes. A PDE4 inhibitor drug based on resveratrol could have the potential to fight several illnesses, though that is very hypothetical at this stage.

Resveratrol also appears to activate sirtuins, a family of proteins believed to regulate genetic activity, repair DNA and extend lifespan, though scientists are not sure of sirtuins' impact yet.

Chung said that resveratrol causes complicated reactions. "Resveratrol binds to many proteins," Chung told Wine Spectator. "Such off-target hits often lead to adverse effects." Chung did not cite specific adverse effects. Prior studies show a relatively low level of toxicity, but there is much that is not yet understood about the chemical's impact.

The medical community is calling for more study. "Don’t get me wrong: It’s interesting research, that could—emphasis on 'could'—open the door someday to new treatments for heart disease, diabetes, memory loss and other chronic conditions," wrote P.J. Skerrett, editor of Harvard's health blog, in an online post. "But it doesn’t merit the hype that comes with almost any new research on resveratrol."

Chung said he agreed with that assessment. Further study is needed.

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