In the journal Science, the team said it had verified that the key to this antiaging process was activating an enzyme in the human body called SIRT1. And while it takes an unrealistically large amount of the red-wine compound to activate the enzyme pathway in people, the scientists reported that they could achieve the same goal with more potent compounds, at least in lab experiments.
When earlier studies showed that these kinds of compounds could extend the lives of lab organisms, some scientists suspected the salutary effect was not the result of activating SIRT1 but was caused by some other unknown factor.
Ronen Marmorstein, a researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia who was not involved with the work, said the research had potential.
"I think it validates the assumption that SIRT1 is a valid target for combating age-associated diseases," said Marmorstein, who studies the science of aging.
The senior author of the study was Harvard's David A. Sinclair, who cofounded Sirtris in 2004. Glaxo bought the company for $720 million in 2008, and Sinclair is now a consultant and cochair of the company's scientific advisory board.
Scientists think SIRT1 could be targeted to fight a variety of aging-related ills - both metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and also ailments associated with inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Using lab animals, some researchers also are studying this molecular pathway as a way to combat Alzheimer's, though it is tricky to get drugs into the brain.
As if all that were not enough to whet the imagination, Sinclair and others are hopeful that someday they can extend the life span of healthy people.
Humans and other primates are complex, however. For example, scientists have found that a reduced-calorie diet can extend the lives of primitive organisms, but last year a study found no such effect in monkeys.
Sinclair remains optimistic.
"It just gets harder as we get to humans," he said. "It's not a law of physics that says we cannot break this barrier."
Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.