Fat and happy

Helen Palmer Nov 1, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We bring you now word not of the Elixir of Life or the Fountain of Youth but something pretty close. Harvard released some new research today. It seems mice that were given a compound found in red wine were able to eat all they wanted — without the usual, bad health effects. Helen Palmer has that story from the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH.

HELEN PALMER: Harvard Medical School scientist David Sinclair fed middle-aged mice a high calorie diet plus the magic compound resveratrol and watched what happened.

DAVID SINCLAIR: They were still fat, but by most measures, including their organs’ health — did they look nice and young? — these mice were as healthy and physiologically similar to a lean mouse that was much more youthful.

They showed no signs of heart disease, no trace of diabetes, no incipient cancers. Resveratrol seems to affect how cells age. These fat, healthy mice lived as long as skinny mice on a normal diet. Harvard’s licensed this research to a biotech start-up, called Sirtris.

Christoph Westphal, the venture capitalist who founded Sirtris, says it could stave off most diseases of old age.

CHRISTOPH WESTPHAL: I’ve never started a company before where the vast majority of the population potentially could benefit from the drugs we’re developing.

But he says this isn’t a license to print money. Even if the therapy works for people, it’ll take years and hundreds of millions of dollars before there’s a drug the FDA can approve. Sirtris has raised $80 million to date.

HOWARD ANDERSON: This is when capitalism works at its very best, and venture capitalism at its very best.

Howard Anderson, founder of the Yankee Group, teaches entrepreneurship at MIT. He says this combination of university research and folk ready to risk their cash has made the U.S. the envy of the world and produced Polaroid and Alkermes and Digital Equipment.

Meantime, this compound isn’t a license to eat, drink and be merry. You’d need about 50 bottles of red wine a day to get enough resveratrol to make a difference.

I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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