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Resveratrol Revisited: The Plural of Data is Not Data

Posted May 19 2010 12:00am

In 2007 I got an email from Preston Estep, a gerontologist and former Chief Scientific Officer of Longenity, Inc., offering me a place in an informal trial of the benefits of resveratrol that he was organizing. Recently I wrote him to find out what happened. Here’s his reply:

We got a few people to volunteer but not enough for an organized trial to be worth the effort, partly because initial reported benefits evaporated under scrutiny and we couldn’t decide what variables/bio-markers to test. There are a couple of efforts that have taken off since then to try to collect data on therapeutic modalities, including resveratrol. The largest-scale effort I know of is CureTogether but it isn’t very useful because the vast majority of reports appear to be subjective and unreliable (e.g. “I feel that resveratrol has slowed my aging …” and so forth). Such a web-based approach would be much more useful if objective tests like those you have done could be implemented but I’m skeptical you could get many people to produce and report data in an unbiased fashion. I have found that the desire to believe whatever you’re doing is good is incredibly strong and can be rationalized ad infinitum.

Interestingly, it looks like professional scientists and even big pharma might have gotten caught up in that mindset. Many of the reported benefits of resveratrol have been controversial from the beginning and recent reports suggest that neither scientists nor pharma can reproduce key results. Matt Kaeberlen, one of the first discoverers that sirtuin overexpression extends lifespan and co-founder of a biotech company with me in the early 2000s, returned to academia and has raised some red flags about the resveratrol research. He showed that the key assay used to discover resveratrol in a drug screen seems to depend on a biochemical artifact. Sirtris, a biotech company specializing in sirtuin research and that was bought by Glaxo for $720M, developed some resveratrol analogs that were reported to have multiple benefits, including control of type 2 diabetes. But recently Pfizer and Amgen have published studies saying they cannot reproduce Sirtris’s results. You can read many reports of this mess on the web but here are good, recent accounts of the controversy:

In a recent New Yorker article about cancer chemotherapy Malcolm Gladwell told a similar story: High hopes for a cancer drug disappeared when more data came in. I am more positive than Estrup about the CureTogether study of resveratrol. If the collected data suggest benefits, it supports more work; if the data do not suggest benefits, it argues against more work. Above all, the CureTogether data will others decide whether to try resveratrol.

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