A group of scientists aiming to imitate the life-extending qualities created by a chemical found in dark chocolate and red wine say they have figured out how this compound functions – and its ability to fight diabetes, obesity, and even some cancers.

This groundbreaking research was published in the journal Science on Friday, and could pave the way for medicine that could mimic resveratrol – a compound that pharmaceutical industries have spent millions of dollars attempting to explore how it can be used to improve the body’s defenses against aging and disease.

The study was led by Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, and revealed a link between a group of enzymes called sirtuins – which trigger proteins that regenerate cells – and resveratrol.

This link could open doors to a new design of resveratrol-related drugs. Sinclair explained, “Ultimately, these drugs would treat one disease, but unlike drugs of today, they would prevent 20 others. In effect, they would slow aging.”

The target enzyme, SIRT1, goes into action on its own via exercise and calorie restriction, but it can also be improved through activators.

The most common naturally-active trigger is resveratrol – small amounts of which are found in red wine – however, more powerful synthetic activators are currently being created.

Until recently, the basic science surrounding resveratrol had been called into question, despite over a decade of extensive research on this topic. There have already been significant results in some trials with implications for:

Professor Sinclair explains:

“In the history of pharmaceuticals, there has never been a drug that tweaks an enzyme to make it run faster.”

The technology was bought by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in 2008. Now, four thousand synthetic activators have been created – 100 times as potent as one glass of red wine – three of which are currently in human trials.

Sinclair says, “Our drugs can mimic the benefits of diet and exercise, but there is no impact on weight.”

There have been a few trials in people with type 2 diabetes as well as psoriasis. Scientists saw improvements to metabolism in the first group and a decrease in skin redness in the second. The drugs can be given topically (applied to the skin) or orally.

Professor Sinclair points out that these drugs could potentially be taken as preventive medicine – the same way statins are prescribed to prevent cardiovascular disease.

In a trial using mice, scientists found that overweight mice given synthetic resveratrol were able to run twice as fast as skinny mice, and lived 15 percent longer.

Sinclair concluded:

“Now we are looking at whether there are benefits for those who are already healthy. Things there are also looking promising. We’re finding that aging isn’t the irreversible affliction that we thought it was. Some of us could live to 150, but we won’t get there without more research.”

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald