Red grapes may hold key to longevity and disease prevention

Special to The StateOctober 13, 2013 

Grapes such as these muscadines at a vineyard in Batesburg-Leesville contain resveratrol, which has great medicinal potential according to studies by USC's Prakash Nagarkatti.

TIM DOMINICK — The State

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Red wine long has been credited for staving off cardiovascular disease in France and Italy, despite a culture that favors a diet of rich cheese and fatty foods.

Prakash Nagarkatti calls it “the French paradox.”

In more recent years, the exact compound in red grapes responsible for keeping European populations healthy has been isolated, and Nagarkatti believes it is the key to addressing many common health issues in the U.S.

Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina, has been studying resveratrol, the compound identified by Harvard researcher David Sinclair in 2003. Sinclair discovered that resveratrol activates a gene known as SIRT1, which is linked to longevity.

In other words, when your great aunt says the key to a long life is a daily glass of wine, she’s not joking.

Nagarkatti is taking that connection and seeing where else it can lead.

“We got interested in looking at the effects of resveratrol on inflammation,” Nagarkatti said. “The SERT1 gene is linked not only to longevity, but also to suppressing inflammation. We were the first to report that resveratrol could reverse or prevent (inflammation) in mice that were developing (multiple sclerosis).”

Nagarkatti and his team of researchers have extended their research to explore whether resveratrol could prevent or slow the development of inflammatory conditions such as colitis, arthritis, lupus or hepatitis.

Nagarkatti’s theory is that inflammation is an underlying cause of most health problems, from neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease to cardiovascular disease. He believes that natural compounds might hold undiscovered answers to some of our country’s most pervasive health issues.

“Very few plants have been screened for their health benefits,” he said. “Ninety percent are not explored.”

Yet natural remedies are nothing new. Ancient cultures were adept at finding cures in the natural world around them.

“They have been used for thousands of years,” Nagarkatti said. “Western medicine has not tried to integrate that into modern medicine. Slowly they are getting interested in that.

“A lot of people are going toward natural products because a lot of these inflammatory diseases are very complex and there is no single effective treatment without side effects.”

Resveratrol is available as a dietary supplement from several commercial vendors, in 100-miligram capsules. (By way of comparison, there is only one milligram of resveratrol in one liter of red wine. So the French may be preventing inflammation and aging, but they probably shouldn’t rely on their favorite merlot to treat chronic diseases.)

Nagarkatti’s research is funded by two grants – one for $10 million and one for $6 million – from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is a branch of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health.

As Nagarkatti’s team moves from animal studies into the clinical trial phase where resveratrol will be tested on humans, he is hoping also to find ways to make the compound more effective.

In its pure form, resveratrol is metabolized very rapidly in the body. Nagarkatti’s team plans to look for ways of altering the compound to make it more stable and increase its bioavailability – the rate at which it is absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the organs that need it.

Ultimately, he would like to see resveratrol and other plant-based remedies being prescribed by doctors and covered by insurance.

The skins and seeds that wineries once discarded are increasingly becoming an additional source of revenue – one that Nagarkatti believes could be as lucrative as the wine itself. Muscadine grapes, which are grown in South Carolina, have a very high concentration of resveratrol, and Nagarkatti hopes his research might lead to a healthier economy in addition to a healthier population in South Carolina.

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